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Under San Diego Unified’s new policy on public comment, all you need to air an issue that’s not on the official agenda is a spare four hours and a saint’s patience.
Imagine you just heard about lead in your school’s drinking water. Or imagine your child uses a wheelchair, but the sidewalks around her school don’t have curb cuts and she can’t access the walkways. Picture rusty spikes sticking out of a school playground. Envision any problem so big you’d show up to a school board meeting to demand solutions from the board members.
You show up at 5 p.m. ready to say your piece, only to be told that public comment – for items that are not on the official agenda – happens at the end of the meeting. You will have to wait an indeterminate amount of time, probably anywhere from three to four hours, to confront your elected representatives.
This scenario doesn’t actually require much imagining. Because it is now the official policy of the San Diego Unified School District.
The new policy came quietly to life last month, on Dec. 11. Just one board member discussed the reasoning behind it. Only one citizen came to the dais to speak against it.
“Moving public participation to the end of the meeting is just another tactic to eliminate criticism. In other words, you want to be able to do what you want to do and no one gets to say anything about it,” Sally Smith told board members. Smith is a passionate, if not obsessed, citizen, who likely spends more time commenting at board meetings than any other person. But her critiques are often relevant, and she has filed dozens, if not hundreds, of complaints that have helped parents avoid paying illegal school fees.
An important detour on public comments: Board meetings used to begin with general public comments, not related to any agenda item. After that, citizens could stand up and speak on any agenda item throughout the meeting as it came before the board. The latter is still true. But now, if you want to speak on something not related to the board’s agenda, you have to wait until the end.
“I wanna make clear to the public in terms of this item we are not cutting back on public comment in any way,” Trustee John Lee Evans told the crowd after Smith spoke. “We have [previously] disfavored people who are coming to give a public comment on an item that is scheduled to be spoken about at the board meeting. … They must come at the very beginning of the meeting. And then they have to sit through sometimes a half an hour of testimony on things that are not related to the agenda.”
That’s true. But people have often used the initial non-agenda public comment period to speak on items that actually are on the agenda. It’s easy to see why. You can show up at the beginning of the meeting, probably just after you’ve gotten off of work. You can speak, and you can go home. You don’t have to wait an unknown period of time for your item to come up. Union members have often taken advantage of this. They show up en masse to register protest on a particular item, and then they can go home.
This is to say nothing of parents who have a unique complaint or concern about their school that has never been aired. Maybe that parent wants to make the board aware of growing violence at their school. Maybe they think school lunches are below a decent standard. That parent would have to sit through hours of eye-glazing bureaucratic motions and process. Maybe they are trying to keep their child still in the seat. Maybe they are paying for childcare.
At this past Tuesday’s board meeting, several people in the audience were whispering about their disgust with the new policy. A teacher, Shane Parmely, stood up and said the policy “tells the people of San Diego how little you value their input.” She suggested people sign up to speak on other items, so they could talk about the new policy. And she suggested the board reverse course as soon as possible, to loud cheers from the audience.
Smith was there too. A friend leaned over to her and jokingly referred to the new policy as “The Sally Smith Amendment” – hinting it may have been designed to keep the perpetual gadflies from having quite so much floor time. It might be more rightly called “The Amendment That Defeated Sally Smith.” She had planned to speak on several items, but not even Smith could make it to the end of Tuesday’s four-and-a-half-hour meeting.
It took several months to finish this harrowing story about the alleged rape of a middle schooler at Mission Middle School in Escondido Union School District, which I reported with Kayla Jimenez. Many students had brought forward complaints about an eighth grade social studies teacher, who they said looked down their shirts and made inappropriate comments about their looks. At least three school workers heard their complaints but failed to act. School workers only jumped into action once a girl came forward and said the teacher raped her inside a locked classroom. The teacher denies the allegations, and has never been charged with a crime.