Education Matters: Restricting public participation

Marsha Sutton

The controversial decision made at San Dieguito Union High School District’s May 14 board meeting gave students the option for spring 2020 to receive letter grades rather than just credit/no-credit.

But it was clear at the May 21 meeting that the issue was far from resolved.

Education Matters by Marsha SuttonWith more than 300 viewers watching the May 21 virtual board meeting, trustees heard from a random selection of 10 speakers, out of 44 who asked to speak.

Of the 91 public comments received, 33 expressed their preference for credit/no-credit only, while 58 thanked the board for voting unanimously May 14 to allow students to choose to receive letter grades.

Many of the May 21 comments from those opposed to the letter grade choice said they had no indication that the board would overturn the C/NC policy instituted by district Superintendent Robert Haley in early April after schools closed March 13.

Now that so much time has passed when students and teachers assumed the grading would be C/NC, many comments expressed outrage that the board would change the policy so close to the end of the school year.

At the May 21 meeting, Haley and Associate Superintendent Bryan Marcus presented a plan based on the board’s May 14 vote that would allow students to choose whether they preferred to receive letter grades or C/NC.

“I think it’s a great plan,” said Trustee Joyce Dalessandro.

But the board vote to support the plan was not unanimous. It passed 4-1, with Trustee Kristin Gibson opposed.

In an email, Gibson explained her vote: “I have been and continue to be in favor of a Credit/No Credit system as the best of the available imperfect options. This is due to reasons related to reliability, equity, and social & emotional wellbeing as I explained during the May 14 meeting.

“However, realizing I was in the minority among my colleagues on the board, and believing as I do that universities will discount any spring semester grades as anomalous regardless of our policy, I voted with the others in favor of staff exploring the development of language that would allow us to implement a letter grade option.

“I thought a unanimous vote might help to unify the community, which had become fractured over the issue. I am not certain if that was the correct decision or not.”

Gibson said she saw staff members struggle to develop the new policy between the May 14 and May 21 meetings, saying the process “was even more complicated and problematic than I had anticipated.”

All 10 district principals criticized the decision to allow for choice in a five-page letter to board members that listed 17 reasons why abandoning the C/NC system was a mistake.

The board’s vote to allow for choice took the community by surprise, with no warning this option was to be considered, the principals wrote.

“(W)e believe the Board erred by not allowing the public to comment on the new proposal,” the letter reads. “While the idea of offering choice may have had merit, it is more harmful than not to implement at this time.

“(O)ur aim should be to act with integrity to do the greatest good and the least harm at this point. Changing the rules on such a high-stakes issue as grades at this late stage does have unintended consequences, and most of us recognize that now.”

Involve community earlier

This is not a passive community. Students are highly motivated, and parents are deeply involved in their children’s academic futures.

The San Dieguito community does not easily accept top-down decisions of such magnitude. If newly hired district administrators didn’t realize this, certainly long-term board members must have.

Rolling out such a divisive and controversial decision of C/NC at the outset, without first hearing from the affected community of students and parents, was at the root of the problem.

The school board was placed in a difficult position, compounded by not holding a board meeting early on to hear from stakeholders.

It was not possible to please everyone, but at a minimum people would not have felt blindsided by one decision or the other if attention had been paid to community involvement from the start.

Perhaps the lesson learned at the district is that these decisions should be addressed early and with complete transparency.

Members of the public have a right to express their thoughts before critical policies are adopted, not after. That applies to those on both sides of this issue.

The public’s right to be heard

While we’re on the subject of the public’s right to be heard, San Dieguito continues to limit the number of public speakers at board meetings to 10 individuals per agenda item. If more than 10 wish to address the board, the district randomly selects 10 speakers.

To speak at the virtual meetings, a form must be completed 24 hours before the meeting starts. For the June 4 board meeting, the form is available from 5 p.m. June 2 until 5 p.m. June 3, and comments are limited to 350 words.

Ten speakers are given two minutes each, for a total of 20 minutes, which is the maximum allowed unless the board votes to extend time for public comment.

At every in-person meeting at San Dieguito I’ve attended (and that’s been many over the last 15 years), the board has always voted to extend the 20-minute limit if necessary to allow everyone a chance to address the board. But not now.

School boards have had to adapt to a new way of conducting public meetings during the coronavirus pandemic. But this new structure does not give them the right to restrict public participation.

At the May 14 board meeting, when dozens of people asked to speak but were denied because of the 10-person limit, the random selection to choose the 10 “winners” had an unintended consequence.

Trustee Gibson, in her comments after public input, said she wished she could have heard from someone who wanted the keep in place the credit/no-credit decision.

Instead, through the random selection, all 10 speakers (actually nine, because the district muted the 10th speaker) told the board they supported letter-grade choice.

Although a handful of speakers at that May 14 meeting preferred C/NC, neither Gibson nor any other board members were allowed to hear that perspective.

I asked district board President Beth Hergesheimer for legal justification for limiting the number of speakers, and she said School Services of California, a statewide resource for educational agencies, told them the practice was acceptable.

A request for legal backing for this policy has been requested of Superintendent Haley, but there’s been no reply as of press time.

Nearby school district policies

Other nearby school districts have different policies for public speakers during virtual meetings.

At Carlsbad Unified School District, anyone wishing to have their comments read aloud at the meeting must indicate so when submitting comments to the superintendent’s executive assistant, and limit the word count to 500.

“Requests for written comments to be read aloud will be honored as long as they are received no later than noon on the day of the meeting,” the instructions read.

Instructions also say there are time limits for public comment (three minutes for non-agenda items and five minutes for agenda items) — “not to exceed 15 minutes for each agenda item.”

It further states that the board “may change the time limits for comments depending on the number of comments received.”

At Encinitas Union School District, there is no mention of limiting the number of public speakers at its virtual board meetings, only that speakers need to fill out a Google form before the meeting and indicate if they would like to address the board.

ACLU weighs in

Last fall, Oceanside Unified School District’s Board of Education received a three-page letter from David Loy, the executive director of the San Diego and Imperial Counties American Civil Liberties Union, challenging the board’s policy on public comments.

Loy’s letter to Oceanside, which resulted in changes to the district’s public comment practice, is relevant for San Dieguito.

“I am writing to express concern about curtailing opportunities for public comment at your open board meetings,” Loy wrote on Sept. 26, 2019. “I understand those opportunities have been significantly limited in ways that undermine public participation and may present legal concerns.”

Loy noted that the district was limiting public comments to seven individuals, and the board “has followed various unwritten practices in how to select those speakers when more than seven people wish to speak on a given topic.”

He criticized the Oceanside district’s practice of sometimes choosing speakers at random and sometimes only hearing from the first seven people to submit speaker slips.

Loy referenced the Brown Act with respect to schools, which states in part, “Every agenda for regular meetings shall provide an opportunity for members of the public to directly address the governing board on any item of interest …”

Referring to a particular legal case, he wrote that the board’s policies and practices on public comment “present significant problems,” noting, “While the law permits reasonable limits, restrictions on public comment may not be ‘applied unreasonably or arbitrarily.’”

“It is difficult to see how a de facto cap of seven speakers per agenda item is reasonable, especially given the Brown Act’s purpose of promoting public participation,” Loy wrote.

He added that he has many times seen public agencies extend the period of time for public comment “to allow maximum public participation on topics of importance to the community.”

Of all the issues that have arisen recently at San Dieguito, it’s fair to say the grading policy was one of considerable “importance to the community.”

On this issue, the public was denied its right to address the board in a fair and transparent manner. We look to San Dieguito to change this restrictive policy.

Marsha Sutton is a local education journalist and opinion columnist and can be reached at suttonmarsha[at]

Columns represent the views of the individual writer and do not necessarily reflect those of the North Coast Current’s ownership or management.

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