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School boards move cautiously to open meetings

Signs of fragile unity exposed during MCSD board discussion

The much-heralded start of in-person education at all levels — from UC Merced to elementary schools — is also opening the door to in-person local school board meetings. At least for now.

The Merced Union High School District Board of Trustees on Aug. 11 held its first in-person, open-to-the-public meeting since the start of pandemic-induced Zoom meetings that keep leaders physically separated and offer parents and teachers call-in options.

Meanwhile, during the most recent “live-streamed” meeting of the Merced City School District Board, members could be seen and heard voting unanimously to begin in-person meetings with limited attendance, including both in-person and call-in public comment, no sooner than Oct. 1.

The Office of Education board, for its part, has held hybrid in-person/virtual meetings for several months.

In contrast, regular meetings held by the Merced County Board of Supervisors and the Merced City Council have continued to be in-person, and open to the public, throughout the summer.

It’s safe to say that the experience of attending a public meeting — with elected leaders physically and directly facing the people they represent as they consider important issues — is something hard to reproduce online.

All this comes, of course, as attention remains focused on COVID-19 safety measures, the vaccination rate, and another surge in new coronavirus cases that includes the highly-contagious delta variant.

Citizens know too well that government protocols can change at a moment’s notice.

It was March 17, 2020, when Governor Gavin Newsom issued Executive Order N-29-20, allowing local and state legislative bodies to hold “accessible” meetings via teleconference without violating the open meeting laws established in the Brown Act.

Interestingly, the governor’s order did not change on June 15 when California lifted a myriad of restrictions. Instead, under the state’s reopening plan, Order N-29-20 is set to expire on Sept. 30. So for now, any local agency meetings taking place after that time must ensure physical public access to all meeting locations.

That detail prompted the Aug. 25 MCSD board discussion on how its meetings should be held in the near future. In their decision, board members also voted to require all potential meeting participants to wear a mask, after a request was made by Board President Birdi Olivarez-Kidwell.

Surprisingly, the agendized MCSD discussion on meeting rules went a little sideways for several minutes when Board member Jesse Espinoza brought up the Brown Act — but in a completely different way.

Espinoza indicated, matter-of-factly, that his colleague Trustee Shane Smith had violated the Brown Act when he made some comments before the board’s Aug. 10 regular meeting.

“I don’t think it’s a small matter that we would be so reckless with our words to not think before we speak,” Espinoza said, and added that Smith was not being responsible to the oath of office that he took.

Smith — who is second most senior member of the board — replied: “So those are some pretty serious accusations.”

And then Smith informed Espinoza, who was just elected to the board last year, that no board actions regarding the brief conversation were made.

“Me casually referencing to one trustee — not knowing that others were virtually piped in — that the high school was having in-person meetings, and that we should consider that, well, I think if you really step back, I think you are taking this a little further than it needs to be.”

Smith also added: “This is not productive.”

While not denying a Brown Act violation occurred, MCSD Superintendent Doug Collins did described the incident as a “casual conversation about in-person meetings.”

In addition, President Olivarez-Kidwell made a brief statement acknowledging that a Brown Act violation had indeed occurred.

Espinoza would later clarify that: “I don’t think it was an intentionally malice mistake. I think it was a thoughtless mistake.”

The striking comments did draw a response from at least one parent who was listening in.

Priya Lakireddy called the meeting line and said: “I think, as a board, you are not as united as you should be, or can be.”

Lakireddy told the board that the conversation she heard “was really awkward for me to hear, and I feel like there is some underlying tension there. … It feels like there is something happening outside the board that is coming into board meetings.”

In the end, Board member Smith appeared to take the discussion in stride, and then later in the meeting, he even introduced a draft “Values Statement and Ethics Code” for consideration by his colleagues. Part of the night’s meeting was dedicated to an update on Board conduct policies.

Smith said he drafted the document by following a similar document that was adopted by the Merced City Council in 2018. He said it was an important way for the MCSD Board to announce to the Merced community that they are committed to transparency and good government.

The document listed six areas of ethical standards: acting in the public interest, complying with both the spirit and the letter of the law and board policies, maintaining a residence within trustee areas, avoidance of conflicts of interest and conduct of board members with respect to District contracting, making decisions based on merit, and creating a positive district environment.

Trustee Smith, in a seemingly magnanimous move, offered to create a subcommittee with Trustee Espinosa to further fine tune the document if needed.

The MCSD board ultimately decided to consider the document at a later date so that the incoming trustee representing Area 3 can weigh in on it. The five-member board has been operating in 2021 with a vacant Area 3 seat. A special election is currently being held to fill the vacancy.

Videos of MCSD and MUHSD board meetings are available on their respective YouTube channels online.

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