Board member Shounak Dharap objected to the change back in April, arguing it reduced access and that many people face barriers to attending face-to-face. On Tuesday, board members Jennifer DiBrienza and Jesse Ladomirak sided with Dharap, voting for his motion to allow Zoom comments starting at the first meeting of the 2022-2023 school year. This week's meeting was the last scheduled one until Aug. 23.
Board President Ken Dauber and board member Todd Collins dissented, with Dauber arguing that allowing Zoom comments may lead to unintended consequences. In particular, Dauber raised concerns about the potential for people outside the area to flood a meeting with online comments and crowd out local voices.
Dauber instead favored waiting to resume Zoom commenting until the ad hoc committee comes up with a formal recommendation that the board approves. At its previous meeting on June 7, the board directed Dauber, as board president, to pick two people to serve on an ad hoc committee about public participation. Dauber announced at this Tuesday's meeting that he was appointing himself and Dharap to the committee.
While the committee is expected to bring the recommendation to the first meeting in August, it would likely take at least two meetings for any change to take effect. The board generally doesn't take formal action at the first meeting that a proposal is brought forward, instead waiting until the second meeting to take a vote.
Rather than wait, a board majority instead decided on Tuesday to allow remote commenting in the interim, while the committee works on its proposal.
One public commenter attended Tuesday's meeting to speak in favor of allowing Zoom comments. The person told the board that remote participation is an issue of equity and accessibility, with long work hours, a lack of child care, transportation issues and health concerns stopping people from being there in person.
"Whatever the reason, keeping Zoom comments overcomes that obstacle and makes our meetings more accessible," the speaker said.
Dauber said he isn't necessarily against Zoom comments but wants to make a plan that addresses potential problems first.
He pointed to a recent example, in which a group called Californians for Equal Rights Foundation published a June 15 press release urging people to contact the Palo Alto school board to object what it claimed were policies encouraging "racial quotas" and arguing that Palo Alto's efforts to improve equity are an example of "thought indoctrination" and linked to so-called critical race theory. The group is based out of San Diego, according to the Internal Revenue Service.
The board received emails in response to the press release, Dauber said, but he noted that nobody actually showed up in person to address the board. Zoom, he said, creates the potential for hundreds of people to call in from anywhere in the world.
"My point is not that Zoom comments are bad or that these are unsolvable problems, but it's putting the cart before the horse to commit first to Zoom comments and then afterward figure out how we're going to manage the implications of that," Dauber said.
DiBrienza responded that she felt Dauber's concerns were "a little alarmist" and noted that in more than two years of allowing Zoom comments during the pandemic, the board has never run into the issues Dauber outlined. She said that doesn't mean it couldn't happen in the future but that the ad hoc committee has the entire summer to come up with a plan.
"By approving them now, we've said our No. 1 priority is that we're going back to Zoom comments," DiBrienza said.
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