School Board hearings in Santa Monica are often protracted, with key discussion items and major actions sometimes undertaken close to midnight amid four-, five- and sometimes nearly six-hour-long meetings.

At its most recent meeting, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) Board of Education discussed recommendations for how to make meetings more efficient without disenfranchising members of the public from weighing in on agenda topics. No decisions were made at the time, but the Board pledged it would make a determination for how, if at all, to reorganize meetings in a future hearing.

“It was during the fall and winter of 2021, the Board of Education discussed ways in which board meetings could be made more efficient and effective,” SMMUSD legal counsel Jay Fernow said during the Thursday, June 30, School Board meeting. “Part of this discussion included amending board bylaw 9322, which addresses board meeting agendas and corresponding materials, and board bylaw 9323, which addresses how board meetings are run.”

Boardmember concerns over “board meeting efficiency and effectiveness” have resulted in a proposal to revise how meetings are organized; in particular, staff suggestions could see members of the public who wish to weigh in on agenda items deliver public comment for those items as one block at the start of the meeting, rather than delivering comments as various topics are addressed throughout the evening and into the night. Then, at the end of the meeting, community members would be permitted to make comments for items not on the agenda.

“Placing public comments on non-agenda items at the conclusion of the board meeting ensures it is more likely that the board business that is part of the agendized meeting will be conducted — hopefully, at an earlier and more convenient time for our community and staff,” Fernow said.

The attorney later added that staff believed the change would “permit more opinions and speakers to be heard at board meetings while ensuring that the business of the board can be conducted in a reasonable and efficient manner,” and added he hoped the changes would “encourage and enable more, not less, civic discourse.”

Fernow’s suggested changes would limit public comment to six minutes total per person per meeting, with comments on various agenda items permitted to take between one and three minutes per item. Another suggested change was to stop allowing comment time to be “donated” to offer one member of the public extra minutes to speak on a particular topic.

Board members peppered Fernow with questions about proposed changes as well as current rules, including questioning how staff would be able to keep track of comments, which will continue to be limited to 30 minutes per agenda item. That would mean district staff would be tasked with simultaneously tracking how much time a speaker uses to address each topic, as well as how much time all speakers have cumulatively addressed any one agenda item.

“It is going to be a challenge, I think, for [Assistant to the Superintendent] Sarah [Wahrenbrock], and whoever else is lucky enough to get drafted into trying to coordinate this — but, you know, maybe we’re over-worrying about it as well,” Fernow responded, adding that staff was suggesting a semester-long pilot program for the new method, to last until Dec. 31, 2022, to assess its effectiveness for the SMMUSD.

Fernow’s suggestions drew ire from several members of the public, more than one of whom have been known to often deliver public comment on multiple agenda items during school board meetings. Those speakers said the proposed changes would particularly affect parents who research items and come prepared with comments and concerns. They also complained that placing all comments in one block makes them difficult to digest or even remember when items come up on the agenda hours later.

Board Member Laurie Lieberman said she had similar concerns, requesting that District staff provide reports and presentations as early as possible for parents to review data prior to meetings. In the end, Lieberman said she was “willing to give it a try” for the trial period.

Another school board member, Jon Kean, said responsibility for making meetings run more efficiently must fall not only on District staff preparations but on board members themselves.

“We, as board members, have a responsibility to tighten up what we’re doing — it’s always easier to speak long than speak short,” Kean said, adding that when particular agenda items have budgeted times, it is up to board members to try to stick to them.

“We had a staff report budgeted for 20 minutes last meeting that went for 45. I mean that’s not even, like, a little miss. That’s a huge miss,” Kean said, later adding, “The point of doing this is not to punish members of the public. The point of doing this is to have meetings that run efficiently that allow us to do the business of the District prior to 10:30 or 11 o’clock at night. And we can’t do that if all of us don’t conform to some of this stuff.”

The next SMMUSD Board of Education meeting is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, July 21. The agenda for that meeting is available at www.smmusd.org/boardmeetings.

emily@smdp.com

Matthew Hall

Matthew Hall has a Masters Degree in International Journalism from City University in London and has been Editor-in-Chief of SMDP since 2014. Prior to working at SMDP he managed a chain of weekly papers...