San Mateo and Foster City residents, your San Mateo-Foster City Elementary School District Board of Trustees does not want to hear from you. Really. And they want to enshrine that attitude in their own rules.
Frequent school board attendees could have guessed this was coming. At the meetings, attendees have been told on numerous occasions that their opinions don’t matter and that their voices were not the ones trustees wanted to hear. But on April 22, the board made clear the value it places on community input. New language tucked into the SMFCSD Governance Handbook limits public comment at board meetings. The handbook now reads: “Individual speakers maybe [sic] allowed three minutes to address the Board on each agenda or non-agenda item. The board shall limit the total time for public input on each item to 20 minutes.”
Currently, the board imposes no overall time limit on public comment, which begs the question: Why the need for such a draconian proposal? The answer lies partially in the handbook itself, which states “every effort will be made to hold Board Meetings to three hours.” Unfortunately, in the days of COVID and distance learning, that is a pie-in-the-sky goal.
Of course, the pandemic will end and meetings will resume a more predictable and shorter schedule. How do we know this? Of the six meetings recorded before the pandemic’s arrival in mid-March 2020, half clocked in under three hours — and the longest was about 3 1/2 hours. But of the 23 regular board meetings since then, only three clocked in under three hours. Board meetings started extending into the wee hours of the night because of the numerous issues surrounding this crisis and school reopening. Only a handful of other topics have drawn such intense community interest as reopening, so once schools get back to normal, the length of these meetings will subside. Yet, the board still stands poised to silence the voice of the people it was elected to represent.
It’s also worth pointing out that these admittedly long hours are what the job of trustee requires at this moment. By the time filing papers for the election were due in August 2020, five board meetings hovered near the seven-hour mark, so the late nights should come as no surprise and be no cause for policy change.
You might wonder what’s the problem with limiting public comment? Part of the answer is simple, as board President Ken Chin has repeatedly stated, public comment is where the trustees get input from the community. Other than writing emails (that may get answered) or leaving messages on some members’ social media platforms, the public has little opportunity to engage on matters of grave importance.
Another problem arising from an artificial limit is the potential appearance of false equivalency. Recently, the San Francisco school board limited public comments surrounding racist tweets by its Vice President Alison Collins. Those who called for Collins’ resignation and those who supported her continuing on the board each were allotted 20 minutes total, but of all the people who had the chance to leave public comment, the majority condemned her behavior.
But at the most fundamental level, this proposal represents a blow to the healthy functioning of a democracy. Taking away the public’s right to be heard stifles our community conversation and civic engagement. Particularly in times of crisis, like now, we should be welcoming more voices, even if we disagree with what these voices say.
Instead of trying to push the public aside, I wish the board would welcome more voices. They have many tools at their disposal: coffee chats, focused community meetings, even shortening the amount of time allotted to each public commenter. The sharing of ideas does not have to only funnel through the public comment method but until other mechanisms are implemented and embraced by the board, public comment provides our only megaphone. And those people who show up know it is far easier to ignore people if you don’t listen to them in the first place.
Rena Korb is a freelance writer and activist. She lives in San Mateo with her family.