RSF School board to return to in-person meetings

A full crowd at a 2019 RSF School District board meeting.
(Karen Billing)

Local school boards will begin returning to in-person meetings this fall, raising questions about whether some of the virtual elements they utilized during the pandemic will continue, such as live-streaming on Zoom for parents at home and the ability to provide public comment without being there in person.

Rancho Santa Fe School District board meetings will be back live and in-person in the performing arts center (PAC) starting in August and at this time the board has decided not to offer any virtual participation options.

Due to the pandemic, last year the governor conditionally suspended some of the provisions of the Brown Act, the biggest being that members of the public no longer had the right to be physically in person at board meetings. That suspension and executive order will go away as of Sept. 30.

“As part of that transition, the board has a few decision to make about resuming normal meetings again,” said the district’s attorney Kendall Swanson at the board’s July 30 special meeting, regarding the virtual streaming of meetings and virtual public comment.

Swanson said there is no legal requirement for boards to continue virtual streaming or to allow members of the public to give comments virtually—historically, members of the public have been required to attend in person to provide comments.

Neighboring Del Mar Union School District returned to in-person board meetings in June, offering no virtual option. The Solana Beach School District’s goal is to continue providing access to board meetings without people having to physically attend and SBSD Superintendent Jodee Brentlinger said they are still working out the next steps. The Solana Beach board plans to be back in-person in October.

San Dieguito Union High School District has video recorded its meetings and posted them to YouTube for the last three years but it has not yet decided whether meetings will continue to be live-streamed.

For many local school boards, going virtual has increased public participation. It is easier for parents to log into a meeting while preparing dinner for the family or tune in only when an item of interest comes up.

In Rancho Santa Fe, meeting attendance has not been markedly raised. For hot topics such as the return to in-person learning, there were 50 to 90 people on Zoom calls but numbers have been much lower for the past several months.

Vice President Jee Manghani said it is extremely rare for there to be a packed PAC at in-person board meetings. In 2019 when the board discussed restructuring and teacher layoffs, there were close to 100 people in attendance but typically there are no more than four people in the audience outside of a reporter, legal counsel and sometimes teachers.

At the July 30 special meeting, there were no members of the public on the call.

Swanson said the option of virtual public comment can be a challenge in larger districts with a larger volume of public comment. In order to run meetings efficiently, some boards have had to limit overall time for public comment like San Dieguito did, limiting speakers to 10, drawn at random.

“Most school districts that I’m seeing are going to public comment being in person but continuing to provide virtual access to their meetings,” said Swanson, adding that however, like COVID-19, things are always changing. “It’s an evolving transition into this new world of virtual meetings.”

Manghani said he would be in favor of continuing with both virtual access and virtual public comment in Rancho Santa Fe.

“I’ve always been a proponent of having more people at our meetings and having more participation from the district and the community,” he said.

However, Manghani said the problem was in the district’s technology glitches—when the board is inside the PAC and broadcasting on Zoom it is hard to hear what is happening. A lot of time is spent trying to solve issues and the district has also received complaints about the sound and the inability for the public to engage in a meaningful way.

Board members John Tree and Rose Rohatgi agreed that with the challenges of technology, the district would need to invest in new microphones and equipment if they continued to offer virtual access.

President Kali Kim did not support the virtual options or spending money on improving meeting technology as it doesn’t do anything to improve the learning environment or benefit students.

“We are a small district and I don’t think it’s a hardship to come to our meetings. We’ve changed times to make it more accessible for members of the public to attend,” Kali said of the 7 p.m. meeting start times. Kim said additionally topics covered at board meetings are accessible to the public as presentations are posted and detailed minutes are available.

“I really want to encourage the public to attend,” Kim said.

As they return to in-person meetings, the board also had to set policy regarding masks at meetings. Rather than requiring everyone to wear a mask or show proof of vaccination, meeting attendees will self-attest to being vaccinated and if not vaccinated, wear a mask.

Following new guidance from the CDC, San Diego County has recommended but not mandated that people mask while indoors in public spaces regardless of vaccination status.