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Want to speak at an MVLA board meeting? You'll need to show up in person

District livestreams meetings, but stops allowing live remote participation

The Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District, which is once again holding in-person board meetings, is requiring that members of the public who want to comment show up in person, although those who attend meetings remotely can email comments to board members. The Mountain View High School campus is seen here on March 16, 2020. Photo by Sammy Dallal

The Zoom era is over for the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District Board of Trustees. The district is running in-person school board meetings this fall and requiring members of the public to show up if they have something to say to the board.

Those preferring to stay remote may watch the proceedings live on YouTube and can email comments to board members. Actually speaking to the trustees requires being in the boardroom.

That's different from surrounding school districts, which are continuing to let people comment remotely in real time. Some local districts aren't yet allowing the public to attend board meetings face-to-face at all.

That's likely to change next month, when Gov. Gavin Newsom's executive order smoothing the way for remote meetings during the pandemic is set to expire. School boards will largely have to return to in-person meetings that are open to the public.

The Mountain View Whisman, Los Altos and Palo Alto Unified boards all continue to allow remote commenting. Some districts may take a vote on retaining online participation, while others have indicated they may continue allowing it without taking formal action.

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Palo Alto board President Shounak Dharap said that he can see his district continuing hybrid commenting for the "foreseeable future," adding that the district hasn't set any end date.

"My personal preference would be to maintain remote access forever," Dharap said. "I think that would be a great upgrade to the way public meetings have been run historically."

Remote commenting was a silver lining of the pandemic, in many cases expanding public access to local government meetings, said David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, a California-based nonprofit that advocates for public access and government accountability.

Snyder said he wants to see boards return to in-person meetings, while also retaining the option for remote engagement in real time, so long as they can make it work technologically.

"That would be great," Snyder said. "We'd have the best of both worlds if that happens."

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MVLA has taken a different tack. Starting last month, it stopped allowing remote commenting. It had been permitted last school year, even after the board resumed in-person meetings in March. The change this fall was intentional, board president Fiona Walter said.

"We're going back to normal," Walter said. "We would rather see people in person."

According to Walter, she and Superintendent Nellie Meyer made the decision to return to a "pre-COVID" meeting model, with the addition of a YouTube livestream to increase access. Before the pandemic, the district only posted audio recordings after the fact.

Walter acknowledged that the district could in theory continue to allow online commenting but said that it is logistically cumbersome, although she didn't detail what the barriers would be. She also said that people can always share feedback over email. At board meetings, Walter announces the number of emails the board has received on a given topic.

"We're not trying to reduce community engagement. That is not the goal. The goal was to get us back to normal," Walter said.

School boards saw big increases in the number of participants during the pandemic. In the past, meetings often drew only a handful of people. During the pandemic, remote meetings would sometimes see hundreds of attendees.

That was likely in part because of the controversial topics on the agenda, namely how and when to reopen schools. However, the format of the meetings may have made it easier for people to attend.

Laura Teksler, who ran unsuccessfully for the MVLA board last year, said she believes many more parents were able to participate in meetings during the pandemic because they didn't have to dedicate a whole evening to showing up in-person.

"One of the few good things that came out of the remote world was that ability for more of the public to engage," Teksler said, adding that she believes the district should continue to allow remote participation, so long as it's technologically possible.

One of MVLA's trustees has continued to participate in meetings from home, while the rest of the board is back on the dais. Phil Faillace said in an email that he has been taking part over Zoom both because of the risk of a severe breakthrough COVID-19 case, made more likely due to his age, and because hearing loss makes it difficult for him to understand what is being said through masks.

Asked whether he believes the public should be allowed to comment remotely, given that he has been participating online, he said "yes" but added that he thinks allowing the public to email the board is sufficient in most cases. The exception, Faillace said, would be when someone wants to respond to something said during a meeting about an item the board is about to vote on.

"The board and administration are still working out the kinks in the current method of livestreaming, and I’m confident some mechanism will be developed to solve this problem in the relatively few instances of its occurrence," Faillace said.

Faillace said he intends to resume attending in-person meetings next month when the executive order expires, at which point he expects that he and his wife will have received booster shots of the vaccine.

Without the executive order, a board member participating remotely must publicly post their address and allow members of the public to attend the meeting at that location.

Faillace said that these requirements "seem to me to have outlived most of whatever use or worth they had when they were legislated, well before the widespread availability of very high quality video conferencing." He said he hopes to work with the district's technology staff to find ways to use available assistance devices to improve his understanding of meetings while masks are worn.

Continuing remote access

California's open meetings laws require that local legislative bodies, such as school boards, hear public comment but don't mandate the allowance of remote comments. During the pandemic, many boards started letting the public comment from home when meetings went virtual.

Holding online meetings was made possible by a series of executive orders from Gov. Gavin Newsom that waived certain provisions in the state's open meetings laws. The most recent order is set to expire Sept. 30, at which point boards will generally have to invite the public back to in-person meetings, though they can continue to give the public the option to participate remotely.

A bill currently working its way through the state legislature would require city councils and county boards of supervisors in jurisdictions with at least 250,000 people to allow the public to participate over the phone or internet until the end of 2023, though the law wouldn't apply to school boards.

Despite the lack of a legal requirement, some local boards are working to find ways to keep giving the community the option of participating from home.

Starting at its Sept. 14 meeting, Palo Alto's board intends to allow the public to attend on-site, as well as over Zoom. In March, board members and administrators returned face-to-face, though the public has stayed fully remote.

Attendees will have to show proof of vaccination, Superintendent Don Austin said, adding that this mirrors the district's requirement for volunteers and visitors. Anyone who isn't vaccinated can take part online.

Once the executive order expires, though, Austin said the district will need to consult with its legal council to determine whether the vaccine requirement is allowable.

"This is all uncharted for everybody," Austin said.

The Mountain View Whisman School District's board is still holding its meetings fully over Zoom. Although in-person meetings will need to resume if the executive order expires, board president Devon Conley said that the district is still working on the logistics of public comment.

At a meeting last month, some board members expressed concerns about having face-to-face meetings with the public while COVID-19 transmission rates remain substantial. Conley brought up the prospect of anti-mask protests at meetings, as has happened in other areas of the country.

In an interview, Conley said that although she didn't want to state a position on the issue before the board formally decides, she hasn't heard any trustees object to letting the public keep taking part online. She added that the board may discuss the issue again at a future meeting.

"Virtual meetings meant that we had way more participation than we ever had before," Conley said. "It just made it much easier for many members of the public to engage with the board."

The Los Altos School District hasn't made a formal decision on whether to retain remote commenting, although members have expressed interest in the idea. Superintendent Jeff Baier said he expects the trustees will discuss the issue at their next board meeting.

Board President Vaishali Sirkay said she personally doesn't think people should be precluded from participating in meetings because of concerns about COVID-19 exposure, adding that attendance and commenting increased during the pandemic.

"I am very happy and impressed with the level of attendance that we're getting," Sirkay said. "I've also been that parent who's at home at seven o'clock on a Monday night taking care of my family and not being able to attend the board meeting."

The board is currently back in-person with district staff, while the public is still fully online. Baier said the public would need to be allowed back once the executive order expires.

Beyond letting members of the public continue to comment online, Dharap said he hopes the California legislature considers amending the state's public meetings law to let board members participate remotely more easily.

To broaden the types of candidates who run for public boards, Dharap said, it is important to be mindful of working families and realize that attending an in-person meeting can sometimes be an "insurmountable" obstacle.

"Increased access is really only going to be facilitated with legislative change," Dharap said.

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Want to speak at an MVLA board meeting? You'll need to show up in person

District livestreams meetings, but stops allowing live remote participation

by / Mountain View Voice

Uploaded: Tue, Sep 7, 2021, 1:30 pm
Updated: Fri, Sep 10, 2021, 2:10 pm

The Zoom era is over for the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District Board of Trustees. The district is running in-person school board meetings this fall and requiring members of the public to show up if they have something to say to the board.

Those preferring to stay remote may watch the proceedings live on YouTube and can email comments to board members. Actually speaking to the trustees requires being in the boardroom.

That's different from surrounding school districts, which are continuing to let people comment remotely in real time. Some local districts aren't yet allowing the public to attend board meetings face-to-face at all.

That's likely to change next month, when Gov. Gavin Newsom's executive order smoothing the way for remote meetings during the pandemic is set to expire. School boards will largely have to return to in-person meetings that are open to the public.

The Mountain View Whisman, Los Altos and Palo Alto Unified boards all continue to allow remote commenting. Some districts may take a vote on retaining online participation, while others have indicated they may continue allowing it without taking formal action.

Palo Alto board President Shounak Dharap said that he can see his district continuing hybrid commenting for the "foreseeable future," adding that the district hasn't set any end date.

"My personal preference would be to maintain remote access forever," Dharap said. "I think that would be a great upgrade to the way public meetings have been run historically."

Remote commenting was a silver lining of the pandemic, in many cases expanding public access to local government meetings, said David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, a California-based nonprofit that advocates for public access and government accountability.

Snyder said he wants to see boards return to in-person meetings, while also retaining the option for remote engagement in real time, so long as they can make it work technologically.

"That would be great," Snyder said. "We'd have the best of both worlds if that happens."

MVLA has taken a different tack. Starting last month, it stopped allowing remote commenting. It had been permitted last school year, even after the board resumed in-person meetings in March. The change this fall was intentional, board president Fiona Walter said.

"We're going back to normal," Walter said. "We would rather see people in person."

According to Walter, she and Superintendent Nellie Meyer made the decision to return to a "pre-COVID" meeting model, with the addition of a YouTube livestream to increase access. Before the pandemic, the district only posted audio recordings after the fact.

Walter acknowledged that the district could in theory continue to allow online commenting but said that it is logistically cumbersome, although she didn't detail what the barriers would be. She also said that people can always share feedback over email. At board meetings, Walter announces the number of emails the board has received on a given topic.

"We're not trying to reduce community engagement. That is not the goal. The goal was to get us back to normal," Walter said.

School boards saw big increases in the number of participants during the pandemic. In the past, meetings often drew only a handful of people. During the pandemic, remote meetings would sometimes see hundreds of attendees.

That was likely in part because of the controversial topics on the agenda, namely how and when to reopen schools. However, the format of the meetings may have made it easier for people to attend.

Laura Teksler, who ran unsuccessfully for the MVLA board last year, said she believes many more parents were able to participate in meetings during the pandemic because they didn't have to dedicate a whole evening to showing up in-person.

"One of the few good things that came out of the remote world was that ability for more of the public to engage," Teksler said, adding that she believes the district should continue to allow remote participation, so long as it's technologically possible.

One of MVLA's trustees has continued to participate in meetings from home, while the rest of the board is back on the dais. Phil Faillace said in an email that he has been taking part over Zoom both because of the risk of a severe breakthrough COVID-19 case, made more likely due to his age, and because hearing loss makes it difficult for him to understand what is being said through masks.

Asked whether he believes the public should be allowed to comment remotely, given that he has been participating online, he said "yes" but added that he thinks allowing the public to email the board is sufficient in most cases. The exception, Faillace said, would be when someone wants to respond to something said during a meeting about an item the board is about to vote on.

"The board and administration are still working out the kinks in the current method of livestreaming, and I’m confident some mechanism will be developed to solve this problem in the relatively few instances of its occurrence," Faillace said.

Faillace said he intends to resume attending in-person meetings next month when the executive order expires, at which point he expects that he and his wife will have received booster shots of the vaccine.

Without the executive order, a board member participating remotely must publicly post their address and allow members of the public to attend the meeting at that location.

Faillace said that these requirements "seem to me to have outlived most of whatever use or worth they had when they were legislated, well before the widespread availability of very high quality video conferencing." He said he hopes to work with the district's technology staff to find ways to use available assistance devices to improve his understanding of meetings while masks are worn.

California's open meetings laws require that local legislative bodies, such as school boards, hear public comment but don't mandate the allowance of remote comments. During the pandemic, many boards started letting the public comment from home when meetings went virtual.

Holding online meetings was made possible by a series of executive orders from Gov. Gavin Newsom that waived certain provisions in the state's open meetings laws. The most recent order is set to expire Sept. 30, at which point boards will generally have to invite the public back to in-person meetings, though they can continue to give the public the option to participate remotely.

A bill currently working its way through the state legislature would require city councils and county boards of supervisors in jurisdictions with at least 250,000 people to allow the public to participate over the phone or internet until the end of 2023, though the law wouldn't apply to school boards.

Despite the lack of a legal requirement, some local boards are working to find ways to keep giving the community the option of participating from home.

Starting at its Sept. 14 meeting, Palo Alto's board intends to allow the public to attend on-site, as well as over Zoom. In March, board members and administrators returned face-to-face, though the public has stayed fully remote.

Attendees will have to show proof of vaccination, Superintendent Don Austin said, adding that this mirrors the district's requirement for volunteers and visitors. Anyone who isn't vaccinated can take part online.

Once the executive order expires, though, Austin said the district will need to consult with its legal council to determine whether the vaccine requirement is allowable.

"This is all uncharted for everybody," Austin said.

The Mountain View Whisman School District's board is still holding its meetings fully over Zoom. Although in-person meetings will need to resume if the executive order expires, board president Devon Conley said that the district is still working on the logistics of public comment.

At a meeting last month, some board members expressed concerns about having face-to-face meetings with the public while COVID-19 transmission rates remain substantial. Conley brought up the prospect of anti-mask protests at meetings, as has happened in other areas of the country.

In an interview, Conley said that although she didn't want to state a position on the issue before the board formally decides, she hasn't heard any trustees object to letting the public keep taking part online. She added that the board may discuss the issue again at a future meeting.

"Virtual meetings meant that we had way more participation than we ever had before," Conley said. "It just made it much easier for many members of the public to engage with the board."

The Los Altos School District hasn't made a formal decision on whether to retain remote commenting, although members have expressed interest in the idea. Superintendent Jeff Baier said he expects the trustees will discuss the issue at their next board meeting.

Board President Vaishali Sirkay said she personally doesn't think people should be precluded from participating in meetings because of concerns about COVID-19 exposure, adding that attendance and commenting increased during the pandemic.

"I am very happy and impressed with the level of attendance that we're getting," Sirkay said. "I've also been that parent who's at home at seven o'clock on a Monday night taking care of my family and not being able to attend the board meeting."

The board is currently back in-person with district staff, while the public is still fully online. Baier said the public would need to be allowed back once the executive order expires.

Beyond letting members of the public continue to comment online, Dharap said he hopes the California legislature considers amending the state's public meetings law to let board members participate remotely more easily.

To broaden the types of candidates who run for public boards, Dharap said, it is important to be mindful of working families and realize that attending an in-person meeting can sometimes be an "insurmountable" obstacle.

"Increased access is really only going to be facilitated with legislative change," Dharap said.

Comments

sarahdox
Registered user
Monta Loma
on Sep 7, 2021 at 2:38 pm
sarahdox, Monta Loma
Registered user
on Sep 7, 2021 at 2:38 pm

Forcing members of the public to appear in person to provide input seems counter to efforts to support cleaner air and climate issues. It is also a way to discourage active participation. There is no indication that remote observers’ in-meeting email will be seen by anyone except the recipient; public comments made during a remote-enabled meeting can be seen by all. This seems a backwards step - away from engaging the public in favor of limiting participation and impact. We live in a changed environment; mixing remote and in-person participation allows many more folks to be aware of issues and to contribute to discussion. Oh, perhaps participation isn’t really wanted? This bears watching.


vsms
Registered user
Whisman Station
on Sep 7, 2021 at 3:03 pm
vsms, Whisman Station
Registered user
on Sep 7, 2021 at 3:03 pm

I think it makes sense. What is to prevent people who have no stake in our community from joining a board meeting via Zoom and derail the agenda by drowning out voices? We're all seeing how board meetings are playing out everywhere -- dominated by the vocal minority.


gretchen
Registered user
Monta Loma
on Sep 7, 2021 at 3:16 pm
gretchen, Monta Loma
Registered user
on Sep 7, 2021 at 3:16 pm

Being elderly, unable to drive at night, and immune compromised, I have reveled in being able to have real civic engagement in the past year. I guess the board only wants engagement from the able bodied well.


minor character
Registered user
Old Mountain View
on Sep 7, 2021 at 3:26 pm
minor character, Old Mountain View
Registered user
on Sep 7, 2021 at 3:26 pm

Removing remote public comment makes little sense. Why call the old way the "normal" we want to go back to, when a more accessible engagement model showed a way that the new normal could be better?


Miriam
Registered user
Rex Manor
on Sep 7, 2021 at 3:39 pm
Miriam, Rex Manor
Registered user
on Sep 7, 2021 at 3:39 pm

I would love for the public to continue to have the option to deliver live comments remotely, across our local governing bodies, at least until we are truly out of the woods with COVID. Permanently would be even better. I sent an email to the board for the last meeting as I was not comfortable attending in person. The only acknowledgment was a statement in the meeting that the board had received an email on the topic. I don't know if the contents of my comment will be read by the board; it certainly didn't have the impact that a live public comment has.


bkengland
Registered user
Whisman Station
on Sep 7, 2021 at 3:49 pm
bkengland, Whisman Station
Registered user
on Sep 7, 2021 at 3:49 pm

This decision tells district students to not take climate change seriously. I trust the teachers will have a way to explain to their students why such a blinders-on big step backwards move occurred. Yes, also a step backwards for the democratic process.


SRB
Registered user
St. Francis Acres
on Sep 7, 2021 at 4:27 pm
SRB, St. Francis Acres
Registered user
on Sep 7, 2021 at 4:27 pm

Glad that boards and councils will be sitting back in the same room. For in person or virtual public commenters, it's important to be able to see the whole board and have their undivided attention (no side communications text, email....).

@MVVoice it would be nice to have hard data points to show how much more and more diverse public engagement there is (or isn't) with zoom meetings vs. in person meetings.


Steven Nelson
Registered user
Cuesta Park
on Sep 7, 2021 at 4:36 pm
Steven Nelson, Cuesta Park
Registered user
on Sep 7, 2021 at 4:36 pm

The MVLA district has AT LEAST improved by now having their meetings 'live cast' via YouTube. In the past it was almost impossible to understand who was talking (on the after-the-fact-audio-only-recordings). What does Fiona Walker sound like, Phil F. vs. another male?

MVLA and particurly it's Board President is not particularly known for being 'first' in easy public participation. The MVWSD has led the three local districts (thanks be to Trustee Christopher Chiang) in easy public video access even 5 years before the Pandemic lockdowns.

Advice - Listen and Watch what is going on at MVLA meeting YouTube- and get ready to 'jump in the car/call Uber' to make it in time for the next agenda item / that you really want to 'talk to'.


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