Editorial

EDITORIAL on OPINION Page: Brown Act fades to black in OUSD handbook

web 4 23 Greenberg OUSD No Surprises
Ojai Unified School District should not waste any more time discussing its proposed “Board Governance Handbook.”

 

 

 

 

OUSD is already governed by its board bylaws, state Education Code, and meeting guidelines printed on its agendas.

The handbook the board spent more time reviewing at a special in-person meeting on Tuesday, April 20, is beyond sloppy. It misstates California’s open-meeting laws — the Ralph M. Brown Act — to make school board members falsely believe — if they are that ill informed — that they risk violating the law if they individually address their constituents’ concerns.

For example, proposed OUSD protocol No. 12:

“If a communication is sent to Board members, members may provide an initial response confirming receipt of the communication, explaining how the Brown Act restrains us from conducting business/discussion in non-public communications, and encouraging the sender to attend a future board meeting where the Board’s business is publicly conducted. Board members shall courtesy copy the Superintendent and the Board President with any such response. The Board President is also the initial spokesperson for the Board with respect to controversial or ‘hot-button’ issues that may require explanation beyond confirmation of receipt.”

However, the Brown Act, as described in California Government Code 54952.2, does not restrain individual board members from having “non-public communications” with another individual.

The Government Code 54952.2 posted above reads:

“Nothing in this section shall impose the requirements of this chapter upon any of the following:

“1. Individual contacts or conversations between a member of a legislative body and any other person that does not violate subdivision b.”

Subdivision b of Government Code 54952.2 reads:

“A majority of the members of a legislative body shall not, outside a meeting authorized by this chapter, use a series of communications of any kind, directly or through intermediaries, to discuss, deliberate, or take action on any item of business that is within the subject matter jurisdiction of the legislative body.”

One year ago, when the Ojai Unified School board spent an hour and 25 minutes belaboring several amendments to a proposed “Board Governance Handbook,” Trustee Jane Weil said (April 1, 2020 OUSD board meeting, time stamp 2:03):

“I have a problem with what I feel like is a sudden distrust of board members. … It’s like boards are, you know, really to be avoided at all costs. Boards get involved in ways that they’re not supposed to, and they’re — it’s just not Ojai. ... It’s made me not happy to be a board member because I feel like board members are not respected, and it just feels accusatory — all this stuff. It doesn’t feel like us.”

That’s because Ojai Unified school board’s handbook outlining “governance norms and protocols” is not “us.” It’s off-the-shelf boilerplate from Coronado Unified School District in 2015, revised in 2019.

Beyond demeaning the role of school board members, the handbook’s effect is also to alienate parents and guardians who entrust their children to be educated in our public schools — the ones governed by board members citizens choose, and paid for by taxpayers.

A year ago, Trustee Kevin Ruf clearly chafed at the “spokesperson” portion of the handbook stating: “As an elected official, I don’t feel like I need consensus from anybody to be able to respond to constituents, you know, ultimately, however I think is appropriate.”

We also find ridiculous the handbook admonition to remember the “‘no surprises’ rule with the superintendent.” First, it assigns an ulterior motive to trustees asking questions, when, in fact, school board members should have questions at school board meetings that they might not have thought to ask the superintendent about prior. There is absolutely nothing wrong with an administrator saying: “I don’t know. I will find out.”

The canard, stated in the current protocols and repeated occasionally by some who don’t want to be bothered by public input or involvement, is that “board meetings are meetings of the Board held in public, not open forum town hall meetings.”

That is insulting to the public the school board serves.

It is understood that public meetings are conducted within certain parameters.

Community members who volunteer, donate thousands of dollars and are integral to a successful school district do not deserve to be referenced in such a condescending manner in a document that dismisses their contributions. 

School districts actually rely on, and in several instances are mandated to include, community members — on school site councils, PTAs/PTOS, art programs, field trips, fundraising committees and much more.

The same goes for school board members who volunteer countless hours to represent their constituents and work for the public good. They should not be so eager to muzzle themselves, under the guise of “good governance.”

At Wednesday’s meeting during board comment, Mr. Ruf quoted from the California School Boards Association: “Citizen oversight of local government is the cornerstone of democracy in the United States. School board members are locally elected public officials entrusted with governing a community’s public schools. The role of the school board is to ensure that school districts are responsive to the values, beliefs and priorities of their community.” Thank you, Trustee Ruf, for stating the obvious.

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For reference, view below the April 20, 2021 OUSD agenda item regarding school "board meeting process and content."

The agenda items may also be viewed also online at: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1tEoRnMbYJ_HZzoXQ-v9C1pEOpiWaEm3l/view

The April 20, 2021 OUSD school board agenda item regarding board governance “norms and protocols” is copied below:

"Governance Norms and Protocols"

 

NORMS

We understand that the work of the Board is to establish the vision, create policies, and assure accountability. This Board will emphasize planning, policy-making, and communication rather than becoming involved in the management of the schools. The Board will set clear goals for themselves and the Superintendent. The Board and Superintendent will facilitate goal setting for the school district.

The Superintendent, as the chief executive officer, manages the schools and makes recommendations, proposals, or suggestions on most matters that come before the Board.

We understand that Board meetings are meetings of the Board held in public, not open forum town hall meetings. We will keep this in mind as we conduct our meetings, allowing the public to provide input at the time allotted to ensure the multiple voices from the community inform Board deliberations.

We will consistently abide by our formal processes so that all persons are treated fairly and equally. We participate in professional development and commit the time and energy necessary to be informed and effective leaders.

The Board will lead by example. We agree to avoid words and actions that create a negative impression on an individual, the Board, or the District. While we encourage debate and differing points of view, we will do it with care and respect.

 

Board Protocols

Board protocols describe how the Board Members serve and perform during and outside of meetings.

Boards operate in meetings. Individual Board Members do not have authority. The only authority to direct action rests with the body as a whole and it takes a consensus or majority of the Board Members to set direction. Outside of meetings, individual Members operate as advocates and community leaders.

 

PROTOCOLS

 

Agenda Questions Asked Before a Meeting

Protocols:

Board Members have an opportunity to meet with or email the Superintendent before the Board meeting to discuss comments/questions on the agenda. Within Brown Act guidelines and to the extent possible, Board Members should attempt to have the Superintendent answer questions and resolve concerns with items in the proposed agenda at this meeting in order to save time at the subsequent public meeting. Board Members will, insofar as possible, let the Superintendent know ahead of time when a request for information will be made in public so that staff can be prepared to provide a thorough answer. Board Members should adhere to the “no surprises” rule with the Superintendent.

 

Bringing New Agenda Items

Protocols:

If there is at least one Board Member who wishes to place an item on the agenda, it  shall be placed on a future agenda in a timely manner by the Superintendent, subject to the provisions of Board Policy 9322. The best time to recommend items is during the period at the end of each meeting that is set aside for general Board comments.

These items will be tracked in the “Parking Lot.” The Superintendent will then recommend a future meeting date for bringing the item before the Board based upon the anticipated length of time his/her staff will need to prepare for discussion of the item. The Board recognizes that from time to time issues may come up during the periods between scheduled meetings that require immediate presentation to the Board. In these cases, the President may give the Superintendent latitude to include these items on an upcoming agenda

 

Consent Calendar

Housed within the agenda, the purpose of the Consent Calendar is to expedite routine operational business with minimal discussion.

Protocols:

The Board will move and approve the Consent Calendar as a whole unless items are pulled. Items on the Consent calendar may be pulled when approving the agenda at the beginning of the meeting. Discussion and vote on particular items occurs only when an item is pulled. There are two specific times that call for an item to be pulled:

 

When a Board Member plans to vote “no”

When a Board Member needs further information or discussion before deciding how to vote. A member of the public may request that an item be pulled from the Consent Calendar, and discussed/voted upon separately, during the initial time for public input. Pulled items trail to the end of the consent agenda. Prior to the vote seeking approval for the consent calendar, Board Members may comment on an item without pulling it from the Consent Calendar.

 

Timing of Board Meetings

Protocols:

Items on the agenda include approximate time for the discussion and the amount of time reserved for that item. If it appears that an item may take more than 5 minutes over the allotted time, the President will ask Board Members whether they want to continue discussion of the item and, if so, for how long.

 

Hearing Agenda Items

Protocols:

The following order of events and timeline guidance should be followed:

 

Staff Reports

Superintendent information and staff presentation

Board member questions (3 min per speaker)

Public comment (3 min per speaker)

Board member comments (2 min per speaker)

Board discussion of Superintendent recommendation

Board acceptance of report. The above time limits are general guidelines and may be waived or adjusted at the discretion of the Board President (and/or through a motion approved by a majority of the Board). The Board may request further information from or provide additional guidance to the Superintendent at this time. When appropriate, the Board may request a future action item related to the report.

 

Philosophy regarding questions after the report:

Questions and consequent answers should intend to amplify a report and add missing detail from previous comments.

The question should highlight an important value or emphasis for future District direction, being aware that wise judgment is required.

Will the question/answer influence your vote or change the vote of another Member?

Members should be careful to not masquerade personal attacks or competing philosophies as questions or

If a Board Member wants to make a substantive point, they will state it clearly and concisely during Board member comment or Board discussion.

Generally, briefing materials (charts, statistics, PowerPoint, etc.) will be provided to Board Members preferably 72 hours but not less than 24 hours in advance in order to give Board Members adequate time to review the material, and the opportunity to send questions to the Superintendent so that his/her responses can be incorporated into the respective Report(s).

Action Items

When the item is up for action, the Board will hear the item in the same way as above and then:

Move for action and seek a second on the motion

If motion dies for lack of a second, no discussion or vote occurs on the motion,.

If there is no second, the chair may ask for a new, possibly related motion and seek a second on that motion.

Deliberation by Board Members

Call for the Vote

 

Voting

As a courtesy to the Board, Members should attempt to clarify their intended vote during deliberation.

 

Use of Abstentions

If a member feels that there is insufficient information to vote on a motion, that member should move that the motion be tabled for lack of information and request the item be placed on a subsequent agenda. If there is no second on his/her motion to table or if the motion does not pass, the member may abstain from a vote. However, agendized action items are known in advance which provides Board Members ample time and opportunity to receive all information needed to vote intelligently and confidently on the motion in question.

 

Conflicts of Interest

If a Board member has a financial conflict of interest as defined by Government Code 1090, he/she shall make this known to the Board before discussion of the issue and shall recuse themselves from any discussion and/or action taken on the item.

“Conflict of Interest” is explicitly defined in Board Bylaw 9270. Before abstaining on any issue, a Board Member should be thoroughly familiar with this Bylaw in its entirety.

 

Community and Public Input

Protocols:

There are two opportunities for public input at board meetings:

Introducing non-agendized items during the time for public comment

When an agenda item occurs

 

In both cases, cards are provided to facilitate public input. Individuals must limit their remarks to 3 minutes. The Board hears leadership committee and stakeholder reports from students (Student Advisory), teachers (OFT), and staff (CSEA), during the time for public comment on non-agendized items. Board Members listen to public input and take it into account during discussion and deliberation. However, except for specific questions on committee reports and general comments. It is incumbent on the Board President’s role to acknowledge and thank members of the public for their input as appropriate. Once Board Members make their comments and move to discussion on an item, the audience and staff no longer participate – the Board conducts the business of the public in public, audience and staff become observers.*

 

*Exception: If the Board feels additional public/staff input would be helpful in determining a course of action, the Board President may make such a request.

 

Requests for Information

Protocols:

If it appears that a request for information from one or more Board Members will take considerable staff time, the Board President will restate the request and ask the Superintendent for input regarding time and resources involved. The Board President will then seek consensus from the entire Board to see if a majority supports the request.

Board Members will not submit direct information requests directly questions to the staff/teachers. Board Members submit all questions directly to the Superintendent. Board Members may make appointments outside of the public meetings with the Superintendent are strongly advised for lengthy inquiries. Members will self-monitor to ensure requests for information do not place unnecessary or inordinate demands on the time and resources of District Staff, especially when it may impact their ability to complete their normally assigned duties. When an individual Member requests information, it will be provided to all Members.

 

Requests for Action

Protocols:

The only authority to direct action rests with the full majority of the Board sitting at the Board table.

Board Members may request action during Board meetings, explaining their interest in a particular course of action and asking that it come back as an action item.

 

Board Members' Role in the Public

Protocols:

Board Members are reminded of their obligations as public servants. Board Bylaw 9010 provides great detail with regards to that obligation and should be reviewed periodically by Board Members for compliance.

 

Self-monitoring

Protocols:

Individual Board Members agree to review and adhere to meeting norms, goals and Board Member roles as defined by this document and Board Bylaws. Board Members should generally not make or receive personal phone calls or texts during a meeting. We ask that personal cellular telephones be silenced before meetings are called to order. If a Board member is required to take a call during a meeting, the Board Member will announce an announcement will be made in public that to record the call was not related to an agenda item. In order to conduct efficient and effective Board meetings, Board Members will come to the Board meetings prepared and ready to do business. Board Members agree to speak to the issues on the agenda and attend to fellow Board Members respectfully.

 

Site Visits

Protocols:

Board Members are encouraged to visit school sites. Board Members shall personally contact the respective site Principal to arrange a convenient calendar date for their visit and the site Principal shall advise forward it to the Superintendent’s office. “Drive-bys” or “drop- ins” on staff and schools are discouraged and should be coordinated with Superintendent or his/her assistant. A board member whose child is attending a district school is aware of his/her role as a board member when interacting with district employees about his/her child. Because her/his position as a board member may inhibit the performance of school personnel, the board member informs the superintendent or designee before volunteering in her/his classroom.

 

Spokesperson

Protocols:

If a communication is sent to Board members, members may provide an initial response confirming receipt of the communication, explaining how the Brown Act restraints us from conducting business/discussion in non-public communications, and encouraging the sender to attend a future board meeting where the Board’s business is publicly conducted. Board members shall courtesy copy the Superintendent and the Board President with any such response. The Board President is also the initial spokesperson for the Board with respect to controversial or “hot-button” issues that may require explanation beyond confirmation of receipt. This protocol is adopted in recognition that the District’s interests may be best served by a timely, informative response to clarify any action taken with regards to the contentious matter. Again, the Board President shall courtesy copy the Superintendent and other Board Members with any such response. Nevertheless, this protocol is not intended to stifle comments from other Board Members, particularly if they disagree with remarks offered by the Board President or if they believe that further comments are important to public discussion and understanding of such issues. In providing additional comments, individual Members should:

Endeavor to permit the Board President an initial opportunity to comment on the issue,

Be mindful that multiple voices may confuse or distract from constructive discussion of the issues,

Not circulate their responses to all Board Members as it might risk constituting an interactive discussion through email in violation of the Brown Act, and

Avoid comments that suggest that the individual member’s comments represent the viewpoint of the entire board.

The hope of the Board is that the public will understand that these protocols are intended to achieve a practical and appropriate balance among the following important but at times competing board objectives, namely, a desire to:

Be responsive to, and respectful of, communications from the public;

Promote efficiency in communications;

Be faithful to the sometimes challenging limitations imposed by California’s Brown Act.

 

Updates and Information to the Board:

Protocols:

Weekly Updates will be sent to the board and should include, at a minimum:

any major incidents on district campuses

updates on current projects

updates on staff changes

The Board should be notified in a timely manner when a legal filing or complaint is received.

Updates on the legal filing may be provided in closed session.

 

Hiring Committees

Interviewing district personnel for employment is an administrative function. However, in determining the composition of personnel committees, the Superintendent may elect to include Board members by seeking volunteers.

When on the panel Board members will:

be members of the panel, not chairs

offer only observations and assessments

refrain from making final recommendations regarding the candidate

speak only for themselves as individuals, rather than on behalf of the Board