ENCINITAS — The San Dieguito Union High School District has changed its public comment system for school board meetings, upsetting some community members who say the new procedures will limit public input.
Historically, the school board has held public comment sessions for agenda items and non-agenda items toward the beginning of their meetings, following a closed session, preliminary activities, presentations, and recognitions.
In some cases, particularly in 2022, when the board and former superintendent faced heightened controversy, this led to over an hour of public testimony before the board could address the main business and action items.
Under the new policy, public comments regarding items on the agenda will take place after the staff presentation for that specific item, with 20 minutes of public comment for each item. President Rimga Viskanta said this provides more time for public comment than the previous system, where just 20 minutes were provided for all comments on agenda items.
In addition, all non-agenda public comments will be heard at the end of the open session portion of the meeting rather than at the beginning. This way, Viskanta said, the board will be able to get to its business more quickly.
“There’s just many ways to do this — some school districts do it at the end or at the beginning. It is hard to find the time that works best,” Viskanta said at the Nov. 14 board meeting.
The Oct. 26 board meeting was the first one with this new format, but due to confusion and pushback from attendees, Viskanta opted to maintain the status quo for that meeting and implement the changes in November.
The changes did not go over well with several community members who frequently make public comments at San Dieguito board meetings. Some said moving non-agenda remarks to the end of the meeting will be hard on parents, as it’s impossible to tell when they will be allowed to speak and many cannot wait indefinitely.
“It could be 7, it could be 8, it could be 9,” said parent Hong Wu. “It might be convenient for the meeting agenda itself, but I think the meeting purpose is for [the] public.”
Parent Peng Peng said non-agenda public comment is the most crucial portion of the board meetings, as it uncovers issues within the district that the board might not be aware of. She said the later this takes place, the fewer parents and students will be able to attend, and the more communication between the district and families can break down.
“The only platform where we can voice our opinions is the public comment non-agenda items section,” she said. “If this public comment time isn’t adjusted back, it will only cause a deeper divide within the district. More parents won’t be able to attend and voice their concerns.”
Trustee Phan Anderson agreed with concerned community members, stating that the time for non-agenda comments should remain at the beginning of the meeting.
“I just think that putting public comments at the end really discourages participation from parents and community members. Being a parent is already a tough job … We shouldn’t be wasting their time. It’s more efficient [if] we just get it done at the beginning,” Anderson said.
Viskanta pointed out that community members can still sign up for public comment until it starts and noted that some districts allow speakers to sign up virtually.
“I’m happy to revisit this as a board, but for now, this is what we’re trying,” she said.
Public comment on closed-session items will continue to be held at the top of the meeting.
Oceanside Unified School District also delays non-agenda public comment at the end of their board meetings. Del Mar Union, Encinitas Union, Solana Beach and San Marcos Unified school districts allow community members to comment publicly on both agendized and non-agenda items at the beginning of their meetings.