Rena Korb

Rena Korb

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.

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(7) comments


Mr Kristofferson I see no need to blame the messenger . what you have here is a total disrespect of the public The board needs new blood with better attitudes not blaming the public . Don't run if you can't do the job.. Disrespect is not a qualification to run.


I agree with you Rena.. There is an entitlement attitude from this board to run meetings any way they choose..They even chastised the police at a march in front of the public. I believe there are alterior agendas such as black lives matter being promoted. I noticed two members vote together on issues possibly implying collusion between meetings.. The attitude iof my way or no way permeates the articles emanating from their meetings..I am delighted to see a well written truthful letter on this subject. The world is not entitled to their way they haven't earned it they just feel entitled having the school board title now.. .

Terence Y

Thank you for your letter, Ms. Korb. Since the SM-FC district is set on pursuing a race to the bottom, especially for math, did you think they would be amenable to listening even more to the public or the parents of kids being held back from reaching their potential? It might be more appropriate to replace so-called Trustees if there is no trust. Are they subject to recall? Maybe new candidates will step to the fore.


Rena, at some point we will no longer get any candidates for school board positions if they routinely have to sit through hours of unlimited comments at every Board meeting, many of which are repetitious. I would suggest that a possible way out of this dilemma would be for the District to have a discussion forum on their website that is accessible to everyone (similar to what goes on on Nextdoor).


I like the idea of a discussion forum. There are also tweaks to the public comment system, like limiting comments to only 1 minute or having a cutoff for "raising your hand." I'm all up for transforming the system, but not without a robust plan for public engagement in place! I'll also point out that it's only been the last election where we didn't have vying candidates.

John Baker

First, I would never use NextDoor as an exemplar of any kind of public discourse. Loudest, angriest voices prevail there because it's easier to express rage in short snippets than it is to present nuanced policy.

As a school board member in another district, I can understand the desire for shorter meetings -- the small stipend I get usually amounts to below minimum wage when divided by the hours of work. And yes, we've had some meetings go until midnight and had to defer business. BUT ... the expansion of participation and range of those commenting in a remote comment environment is SO much more diverse now than it was in the past. Look, the 17th person saying the same thing can be frustrating to listen to, and I will personally usually consider a well-written email to have more weight than a rushed verbal comment, but I do think that it's important to NOT limit public comments at meetings, provided they stick to policy matters and don't get overly personal in their attacks. As elected officials we have to listen to, if not necessarily bow to, the wishes of the public.


John, our neighborhood engages in informative discussions on Nextdoor frequently, so I don’t share your opinion of that platform, but undoubtedly some neighborhoods may be less “neighborly” than others. Your comments may be more true of other social media platforms, but in our area Nextdoor seems to avoid the worst behavior displayed on platforms like, e.g., Twitter.

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