San Dieguito school board changes its public comment protocol

 San Dieguito Union High School District board
The San Dieguito board at a past meeting.
(Karen Billing)

The San Dieguito Union High School District board will debut its new public comment structure at its Dec. 14 meeting.

Historically, the district has had a public comment period for non-agenda items, closed session, the consent calendar and then a separate public comment period for every discussion/action item. As an example, the Oct. 14 meeting had a total of 14 separate public comment periods.

This year San Dieguito adjusted its public comment protocol, randomly selecting 10 speakers to speak for two minutes, not exceeding a 20-minute time limit on an agenda item. In the past speakers were given three minutes and the 20-minute time limit was often exceeded with approval by the board.

Per the new protocol approved unanimously on Nov. 18, the public comment periods will be condensed into three periods: non-agenda items, agenda items and closed session.

Comments will be limited to two minutes in a 20 minute time frame and on agenda items deemed controversial, the board president can consider limiting the speaking time to one minute to allow more community voices to be heard.

Members of the public will still have the opportunity to comment during each of the three public comment periods.

“The purpose of bringing this agenda item forward is to allow for efficiency and effectiveness in running our meetings,” said Superintendent Cheryl James Ward said. “If we have those three opportunities to speak, that’s 60 minutes.”

The purpose of board meetings is to do board business in public which she said can be difficult when meetings are going long—the board met for nine hours on Nov. 18.

“When I’m tired I am not my best and I want to move it along,” Ward said. “The point is to ensure that in closed session and open session we are making the best possible decisions that we can.”

During public comment on Nov. 18 several speakers said they were not in favor of the change, arguing that it limits the public’s ability to participate in the decision-making process and causes further distrust in a district that has been divided on a number of issues in the past two years.

“I believe the board is prioritizing expediency at the expense of public input,” said parent Marina Fleming. “Given the length of today’s meeting, I realize there’s a need to figure out a way to streamline meetings… (however) public comments aren’t what resulted in this meeting being so long.”

Trustee Katrina Young pointed out that the California School Boards Association (CSBA) offers best practices for boards and she suggested that they have a review of their proposed public comment protocol from CSBA prior to its approval but her suggestion was not backed by the majority of the board.

In favor of the changes, Trustee Michael Allman said their past method of allowing comments on every item was “a mess” and “most would agree not very productive.”

“It’s a balancing act,” Allman said. “We want to hear from the public and of course they have a right to speak but we have to have some limits or we’ll never get business done.”

Per the Brown Act, organizations may adopt reasonable regulations for public comment periods, including regulations limiting the total amount of time.

The 20-minute time limit on public comment is practiced by other districts, such as neighboring Del Mar Union and Solana Beach School Districts. At times when the number of public comments has exceeded 20 minutes, the boards have voted to extend the comment period.

With the move to virtual board meetings in April 2020, San Dieguito began accepting written comments, posting all that were received on the website for the public to view. At times, they received thousands of comments on various agenda items—a special board meeting in May featured 87 pages of written comments. That practice was halted before the Feb. 1 board meeting.

Rancho Santa Fe and Encinitas Union School District operate similarly to San Dieguito’s new protocol, with just one public comment period at the beginning of the meeting. Del Mar Union allows public comment on every agenda item and Solana Beach School District has two public comment periods, closed and open. Solana Beach also accepts written public comments that are read into the record at the meeting, but they are not posted.

Ward has also begun a new protocol of bringing potential action items to the board as discussion items first, giving more time to get the information out and for interested community members to weigh in.

Allman said there is no shortage of ways for parents to interact with the board but they can always do better. He said he likes the idea of expanding beyond just public comment at meetings with surveys, superintendent/principal coffees and single-issue town halls.

“I think the more feedback the better,” agreed Vice President Melisse Mossy.