Every month an event of monstrous proportions takes place in Plumas County. It requires epic fortitude. It bruises the body, numbs the mind and crushes the soul. Participants dread it. It takes days, even weeks to recover. We are, of course, talking about the School Board Meeting.
The agenda can stretch to four or five pages. The packet is so large you could club a small animal to death with it. The meeting can plod on for five or six hours.
At some point during December’s interminable exercise it hit us why the agenda is so unwieldy: the district segregates information, discussion and action items. So an item might appear several times on the agenda — once when the board discusses it and again when the board votes on the matter. Instead of grouping related items, the district sprinkles them throughout. On the December agenda, various items related to school closures appeared in three or four different places.
The net result is to discourage public participation. A member of the public who wants to hear not just the board’s deliberations on an item but also its decision must abide for hours. It can take a couple of hours just to get to a discussion item, since the district does information items first (many boards save those reports for the end). After the discussion, a person may have to sit for another hour, even two, before the board gets around to a vote.
At the December meeting, board members themselves lost track of what they were doing when. Discussion seemed to be leading in one direction but members had to pull up short and not take any action. By the time they got back around to the topic, they had lost the thread of conversation.
At the January meeting, not one citizen spoke during the public hearing about the possible consolidation of Pioneer and Quincy elementary schools. Who could fault the board if members assumed people just weren’t interested? But that’s not the case: more than 100 people turned up for the Quincy 7-11 committee’s first public forum last week. Could it be that no one spoke at the board’s public hearing because the meeting was 90 minutes behind schedule by that point?
Because the meetings are so long, little things get lost, like the parental notification letter the board wanted to go out in January. In December, the board asked the district to bring a draft to the January meeting. Guess what wasn’t on January’s agenda? The district did eventually post a letter from the superintendent on its website, but it’s unclear if this was what the board had in mind.
Why on earth would the district take this approach to organizing its agenda? The district believes, erroneously, that the Brown Act requires it. Really? If the district’s interpretation is correct, then every major board in Plumas County is violating the Brown Act and has been for years. We checked in with a number of attorneys, all of who agreed the Brown Act in no way requires that. Most boards group similar items and identify them for discussion and possible action. We looked at agendas from numerous other school districts — not one takes PUSD’s approach.
The district’s model is particularly insidious because under the guise of bending over backwards to follow the Brown Act, it is really subverting the spirit of the law. One attorney cut to the chase: the school district’s approach “could be construed to intentionally deprive the public of participation in that it forces a waiting game. It is not only inefficient and problematic, it suggests subterfuge.”
Is it any wonder community members are expressing an unprecedented level of cynicism about the school closure process and school district leadership? The board itself recognizes that it has a problem: in this issue it uses the district’s advertising space (see page 2B) to try to reassure citizens that it has come to no conclusions about school closures.
The board could go a long way toward reestablishing credibility by junking its current inhumane approach to its agenda and adopting an efficient, user-friendly one that encourages public participation.