Editorial Commentary: Williams school board taking new approach to communicate with public

The Williams Unified School District might make the late Assemblyman Ralph M. Brown proud in that its school board meetings are well posted, items on the agenda are adequately described as the law requires, and that trustees typically, with the exception of crisis situations, conduct the public’s business with relative ease under general rules of order.

But Williams Unified school board members, at a public workshop on Aug. 1, admitted to having struggled to conduct the district’s business in such a way that enables the public to scrutinize their decisions. They also admitted to difficulty navigating chains of emails, social media, and social situations that lead them into the inadvertent disclosure of protected educational records or information, or puts them, as individuals, into positions of perceived authority over students or staff.

That difficulty, said Board President Sylvia Vaca, will hopefully come to an end.

The school board met last week with representatives of the district’s general counsel, Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost, to introduce a draft of the district’s first Governance Handbook, which along with district policy and the Ralph M. Brown Act (California’s open meeting law) should provide current and future trustees with a better framework for effective governance.

“I think, and I am going to say this for myself, we kind of step into boundaries that do not belong to us,” said Vaca, referring to conversations with members of the community. “It is easy for it to get off and go the wrong direction, even when just talking to a friend. We have to be very careful. It’s not just saying something wrong; sometimes people just hear what they want to hear.”

Terilyn Finders, who led the workshop, is the law firm’s director of communications, and has a long history of dealing with clients whose legal matters have captured the attention of their communities, media, and social media.

Although she met with the Williams board a year ago, she said it is always a good thing for a school board in crisis to take a step back, regroup, and then move forward with discussions about the board’s purpose, roles, norms, and come to an agreement on protocols that will enable the board to better perform its responsibilities.

“It’s great that (this board) is taking time to regroup and learn to work better as a team, because (they) are a team,” Finders said. “Only the board has authority, and this can slip away from us, particularly when community members are hot and bothered, and they want to talk to us, and they think we need to get over to the superintendent and tell him we really need to get something done. And I don’t think the community necessarily always understands that the board, as individuals, don’t hold full authority; only the body, legally, has the authority to give direction to only one employee – and that is the superintendent.”
The draft governance handbook is currently an 11-page guideline, but will, upon completion and adoption, provide the school board with general instructions like avoiding commenting on social media, avoiding responding or commenting to emails instead of directing them to the board president or superintendent, avoiding direct involvement in a personnel or student issue, and avoiding the inadvertent release of protected information while talking to members of the public.

The document also reminds board members that they are elected officials at all times – not just during the conduction of the district’s business – and that they are to hold themselves to the highest level of conduct.

Board members last week also admitted to struggling during public meetings to adequately communicate their decision-making process, which they know has polarized and angered the community.

Part of the problem is that most of the board members are new, and part is that many people do not fully understand how the agendas of legislative bodies are developed, or that law prohibits them from taking action on matters the public brings before the board during the period of open public comment or before a meeting, Vaca said.

The school board, however, should not have stopped at that explanation. The board needs to take more responsibility for alienating the public they work for.

They professed last week to understanding and adhering to the Ralph M. Brown Act, yet the board’s virtual lack of deliberation on nearly every matter before the public is why the community and the media have accused them of violating the spirit, if not the letter, of the law.

While the Brown Act allows for individuals of a legislative body to seek information on matters of business that will be on the agenda, the law prohibits them from directly or indirectly developing a “collective concurrence” on any matter before they take formal action.

If the school board has fully deliberated a matter at a prior meeting or public workshop, they should say so at the time of formal vote, Finders advised. If they approve a matter that staff has worked on for a period of time and presented at previous public meetings, then they need to say so at the time of formal vote.

The Brown Act is complicated, and problems arise in its application. The lack of deliberation generally indicates to the public that the board’s “pre-meeting” discussions (even if they are one-on-one or in non-quorum pairs) with their staff or superintendent, are more than just fact-finding endeavors.

“A lot of people don’t like to come to a board meeting because it’s yea, yea, yea, yea,” said Trustee George Simmons, at the workshop. “Well, the yeas are there for the simple reason in that we’ve worked all this out before (the meeting). We don’t put anything on the agenda that we are going to argue about. This is a team, so we work all the difficulties out first.”

While the public expects board members, for the purpose of time and efficiency, to be informed on matters that come before them at meetings in which they do the public’s business, the Brown Act requires issues to be deliberated in public. It is the law for one reason: “The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”

Williams Unified’s issues this past year are not unique, and effective governance is certainly not a hard fix, especially if the school board agrees to and complies with Finders’ recommendations to “bring the public along” in the decision-making process.
The school board’s new handbook states that while information will be provided to all board members, “trustees will make every effort to submit, prior to the meeting, questions they intend to ask so that the superintendent and district staff has the opportunity to prepare to answer those questions at board meetings. If unforeseen questions arrive during the meeting, trustees will acknowledge their question or comment as spontaneous and that they understand that staff may not have the information on hand to answer the question.”

The school board may be a team, but collectively they represent the people who elected them to conduct the routine business of the district.

Before they vote, the public expects trustees to explain their positions, keeping their remarks brief and to the point, so that all opinions can be expressed in a timely manner.

The public expects trustees to only abstain from voting when required by law, due to a potential conflict of interest, and not to avoid going on record.

The public expects a staff introduction, presentation, or comment, however brief, on each action item on the agenda, and the public expects the school board to fully allow input from the community, who should also keep their remarks brief and to the point, so that all opinions can be expressed in a timely manner.

The public expects school board decisions to be deliberated in public where it belongs and not behind closed doors.

Why?

Because the board represents the public’s interest in taxpayer-funded schools, and not just the interest of district.

The Williams school board should be applauded for their agreement last week to look upon past history as lessons learned, so that they can now focus on the present and the future.

Their new handbook, if adopted, is a path for them to create and sustain a positive governance team that shows respect to others, deliberates effectively, and commits to open communication and honesty, with no surprises.

If the public gives the school board the same respect, and agrees also to communicate effectively and honestly, then aye or nay votes at school board meetings might be a little less cause for discord.