School board’s ‘two-meeting’ bylaw now under consideration

Joshua Yang, Forum Editor

As the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) School Board elections approach, the future of a rule requiring all agenda items to be debated on for at least two meetings is uncertain. Currently, the board may choose to waive the rule with a two-thirds majority in regard to routine agenda items.

During recent meetings, however, the board has taken to waiving the two-meeting rule for more than just routine agenda items, according to School Board Representative senior Arjun Prabhakar. “In past years, [the board waived this rule] only once or twice per meeting, maybe even less—it would be really rare,” he said. “This year, they are waiving it on maybe at least three or four agenda items per meeting.”

In fact, an agenda from the Sept. 4 board meeting records the board recommending the waiving of the rule no fewer than six times on non-routine items.

Community and board opinion is divided concerning the future of the policy.

School Board Vice President Jennifer DiBrienza believes the two-meeting rule is essential to community participation. “The intention [of the two-meeting rule] is to make sure that we allow for broad community input,” she said.

DiBrienza also pointed out how the two-meeting rule allows for greater community awareness of issues. “I know that very often before I was on the board, I wouldn’t know an issue was coming before the board until they discussed it at the first meeting,” she said.

However, School Board President Ken Dauber believes the board should completely discard the rule in order to increase efficiency. “I would like us to move away from the two-meeting rule and instead talk about things more than once only when it’s productive to do that, rather than being required to,” he said. “I would like to change the two-meeting rule because I think it’s inefficient and unnecessary.”

Given the proximity of the school board elections, school board candidates have also weighed in on the issue. PAUSD school board candidate Kathy Jordan has been an advocate for preserving the rule, citing greater community engagement. “Giving the public an opportunity to participate and engage with a public entity is more important than waiving the two-meeting rule for efficiency,” she said. “The public has a right to be involved.”

Candidate Shounak Dharap follows Jordan’s philosophy regarding the policy. According to Dharap, the policy also benefits board members. “Between the first and the second meeting, that time gives board members the time to really dwell on an issue: to really grapple with all the perspectives, to get into the details and come up with a thoughtful solution,” he said. “Just thinking on your own is not enough to do that, because you need to have someone who’s going to challenge your assumptions and bring a new perspective to the table. If we were to decide on controversial issues the first meeting, board members would have no opportunity to actually really absorb and think on them.”

Candidate Stacey Ashlund expressed her support for the two-meeting rule as well. “The reason I continue supporting [the rule] is because it is in the best interests of the public to be informed, and also in the best interest of the board members to work collaboratively,” she said.

The two-meeting rule has long been part of the PAUSD policy; in fact, according to Dauber, a board member from the ’90s could not remember when the rule was voted in.

The rule, which is a section of Board Bylaw 9323, was in- tended to give community members more time to participate in discussions. “The goal is to maximize the ability of members of the public to comment on the issue,” Prabhakar said. “If there are several meetings or several weeks that community members have to read through agendas [or] documents [and] make more educated comments on an issue, that would not only give the board more community feedback at meetings, but also make sure that opinions are well-informed and rooted in fact.”

There have been mixed opinions about the appropriate times to waive an agenda item as well. Prabhakar hopes the board will move towards waiving the two-meeting rule sparingly.

“The board is waiving the rule for more and more of things that should have community input, so I think overall, it decreases the ability of community members to comment and get involved in issues, which is an example of the board moving in the wrong direction,” he said.

DiBrienza agreed, stating that the two-meeting rule should never be waived for controversial issues. “I can only speak for the current board,” she said. “But I think that universally, we agree that there isn’t [any issue] we anticipate that would be a hot button [issue] that we would try to push through by just one meeting.” Jordan calls for even more restrictions on waiving the two-meeting rule. “I prefer not to see them waiving the two- meeting rule at all,” she said. According to Jordan, the only time necessitating waiving the rule would be in cases of emergency. On the other hand, Dharap believes the board will see fit to act as needed. “[The rule is] waived at the board’s discretion, and I think that’s appropriate,” he said.

In Dharap’s opinion, only certain issues should be waived. “The two- meeting rule is implicated more so in discussions that have a real broad community interest,” he said. “We’re talking about school renaming, weighted GPA, general counsel even and ombudsmen. Things that are going to affect the community and that have a really big impact on them.”

Dharap’s support for the rule comes from the extra time allotted to mulling over issues; he summed up his thoughts with a quote from French philosopher Voltaire: “No problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking.”