OCEANSIDE — The Oceanside Unified School District board has changed its public comment policy at board meetings, leaving some residents frustrated about the change.
During the Aug. 21 meeting, the board approved a revision that moves its public comment on agenda items to the beginning of the meeting and limits each person to three minutes to speak about any topic on the agenda item. Previously, members of the public had three minutes to comment on an item once it was called and prior to board approval.
According to Donald Bendz, director of communications for the district, the change honors requests from the public to move public comment to the beginning of the meetings.
“For example, if you had two or more items to comment on, and one was at the top of the agenda and the others were at the end of the agenda, a speaker would sometimes have to wait 30 minutes to an hour to make their second comment,” Bendz said via email. “By moving this to the front of the meeting, we are honoring the request from the public and giving them the opportunity to comment on multiple agenda items much earlier in the meeting without having to wait for the item to be called.”
Bendz noted that the public comment period on non-agenda items will still be the last item on the agenda before meetings end.
The board also stopped broadcasting its board meetings through KOCT, Oceanside’s public access television station, meaning there will no longer be a live stream for people to watch from home or recordings of meetings to watch later. The Aug. 21 meeting was not broadcast or recorded.
Bendz explained that the board only began broadcasting its meetings because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“OUSD has never before broadcast our board meetings on KOCT,” Bendz said. “When federal and state Covid restrictions expired last spring, we did not renew our contract to broadcast board meetings for this school year.”
Some regular public participants at school board meetings are upset about the change.
Todd Maddison, an Oceanside resident, parent of a former student and regular critic of the district, called the changes “some of the most extreme ‘anti-parent’ moves” and “some of the most severe restrictions on public comment” he has ever seen.
“(The Aug. 21) agenda had 9 items on it that allowed for individual comments,” Maddison said via email. “That would have allowed anyone interested to have spoken for 27 minutes – and this was a fairly limited meeting. Reducing that to 3 minutes is, of course, a 90% reduction in public comment time.”
Maddison said the change “effectively makes public comment on agenda items in OUSD useless.”
He also pointed out that the public is now expected to make public comments on items before viewing staff presentations.
“Few of these presentations are ever included in board documents prior to the meetings, and they are almost always only available on request after the meetings,” Maddison said.
Maddison was also unhappy about the board stopping its broadcasts of meetings and said the board “took advantage of the cover” to pass the change to its public comment policy.
Some took their complaints about the school board meeting changes to the Oceanside City Council at the following evening’s meeting on Aug. 22.
“They start off disingenuously encouraging members of the public to speak, yet this entire amended bylaw does exactly the opposite,” said Sandra Martinez at the council meeting. “If someone actually had concerns on three of those items, there’s no way anyone can actually address that.”
The City Council did not comment on the school board’s change in policy.
While Oceanside Unified is one of the few school boards in the area to make this particular change, they have the discretion to do so.
California’s Brown Act requires school boards to provide an opportunity for public comment either prior to or during the board’s consideration of an item.
According to the California School Board Association, school boards must ensure they provide sufficient time for individual speakers and the entire community at the meetings while also completing a meeting with a lengthy agenda in a reasonable amount of time. Boards must also keep order at meetings by ensuring an orderly discussion and have the ability to remove speakers who disrupt a meeting, if necessary.
“These laws allow boards to create reasonable limitations on public comment, within the framework of protecting the public’s right to participate and allowing the flow of ideas and viewpoints for the board’s consideration,” the association states.