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Manteca Unified reduces access by cutting meetings

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POSTED December 12, 2009 2:40 a.m.
If there was ever a time that schools need the full support of the public it is now.

Unfortunately, the Manteca Unified School District board has opted to reduce public access on its most elementary and basic level – public board meetings.

The school board on a split 4-3 vote Tuesday - with Rex Holiday, Nancy Teicheira, and Manuel Medeiros dissenting – reduced the frequency of regularly scheduled board meeting to once a month. The majority, it should be noted, have strong direct ties to education as they are either making a living in the field or have since retired or changed jobs.

They majority hung their decision on the district office staff and administration having been severely cut therefore it is now difficult to handle the workload of preparing for a meeting every three weeks.

Of course, if special meetings are needed to deal with the budget, they will be scheduled.

On the surface the rationale makes sense but only if you are willing to accept reduced public input at the board level and believe that less communication in a public forum is a good thing when the state budget crisis is effectively taking a weed whacker to educational programs and the classroom.

It was a surprising but albeit knee jerk solution to a manpower issue.

Criticism has been going strong for years about how “feel good” presentations take up a large chunk of time and that general comments allowed from the public comes so late in the meeting that most people opt not to attend a board meeting when they have a concern that isn’t on the agenda.

Imagine what happens when you collapse 16 or so regularly scheduled meetings down to 12. That means even more presentations giving kudos to staff and students who deserve accolades. That, in turn, would push public comments back toward midnight or beyond.

A cynical person would suggest it was a move to frustrate – and therefore silence – district critics.

While that hardly is the case, the board should have thought a bit more about what they were doing.

First and foremost the times we live in require as much transparency and communication as possible. That includes the general public – the people footing the bills and who expect the community’s youngsters to get an education – as well as staff and parents. There are tons of opportunities for parents and staff to have input. That is not the case for those who don’t have children or even those who do and are essentially cut out of the process inadvertently do to the timing of informational meetings.

Rest assured the four non-educators on the board were acutely aware of this as their perspective isn’t one of being plugged into the school system at least eight hours day but as “outsiders.” This doesn’t make the board members who voted for reducing meetings are disconnected from reality it is just that there reality – or life experiences – are much different. One of those differences is sleeping, eating, and talking education.

How could this have been done differently and take into account staff pressures?

The trustees could have switched to twice a month meetings.

One meeting would have the stuff that requires tons of paperwork and footwork – warrants, student and personnel actions that need to take place behind closed doors, and other such endeavors. That meeting could also include the feel good stuff that is important yet shouldn’t be allowed to impede on the public’s ability to access their elected leaders in a formal board meeting without having to cool their heels for a long period of time at the start of the meeting. There would, as required by law, be public comments at the end.

The second meeting could entail policy decision items that aren’t run-of-the-mill. That would exclude disciplinary and personnel actions as well as warrants and routine stuff. There would be no feel good stuff. There would also be public comments at the end.

Does it reduce the workload on top district administrators who have to be at both meetings? No. It might even increase it.

But for the significantly  reduced workforce of classified and lower level district administrators that are doing vital work and are splitting up work that was done by people who are no longer with the district, it would still reduce time in terms of preparing for four less meetings a year.

It makes sense for Ripon Unified – a district of less than 3,000 students that is self-contained in one community to meet once a month.

Manteca Unified, though, has 22,000 students and serves there distinct communities – Manteca, Lathrop, and Weston Ranch. There are over 100,000 people that the board answers to in how the district is run.

Reducing the opportunities on a regularly scheduled basis that those people can access their elected board about issues involving their school district doesn’t seem like it is a step in the right direction in terms of enhancing communication and accountability.
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