San Diego School Boards Are Limiting the Public’s Right to Comment

By Melissa Deleon

On September 18, the ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties (ACLUF-SDIC) asked school leaders at San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) to allow members of the public to give live, verbal virtual comment during school board meetings. In other words, we asked the district to listen to you, the community it purports to serve.

So far, the district has effectively responded with a “no.”

Members of the public have the legal right to participate in school board meetings. The law requires that SDUSD, and all government agencies, allow the public to comment on agenda items and matters within their jurisdiction. SDUSD, like many school districts in San Diego and Imperial counties, moved to virtual meetings due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of allowing live, verbal public comment by Zoom or telephone, as government agencies throughout San Diego are doing, SDUSD only accepts written public input – limited to 150 words – if submitted before 10am on the day of the board meeting. The law simply does not allow for the elimination of live public comment altogether. You can read more about the legal violations in a letter the ACLUF-SDIC sent to the district in September.

SDUSD has a history of limiting or deterring public input. In late-2018, the district moved all public comments to the end of school board meetings. These meetings begin in the evening and last several hours. This means, for example, that when a parent of a student who is an English Language Learner (ELL) wants to provide input about how the district should spend taxpayer dollars reserved specifically for supporting ELL students, they likely have to wait for hours to speak and may be cut off after one minute. When parents and teachers asked SDUSD to reconsider this policy to make it easier and more accessible to address the school board, the district said no.

SDUSD’s incremental changes to public comment policies have, over time, eroded the public’s legal right to be heard. Equally troubling is the underlying message this sends to the community – that school leaders will not hear directly from you.

Potential legal violations aside, during unprecedented school closures when students and teachers are forced to utilize distance learning, school leaders should strive to give students and families more access and opportunities to connect; not less. School leaders should model the same critical listening skills that they are entrusted to teach. Schools should honor your rights and welcome communication in all forms.

This is why the ACLUF-SDIC asked SDUSD to comply with the law by ensuring that members of the public can provide live, real-time virtual comment by telephone, teleconference or otherwise. And we have now asked the same of all districts in San Diego and Imperial counties. In our virtual environment, it should not be a difficult thing for SDUSD, or any district, to do.

Protecting the public’s right to be heard is part of the bigger fight to ensure that schools make equitable decisions informed by the needs and experiences of the students they serve. If school leaders refuse to hear you as they make key decisions that impact your lives, then how do you know they are representing your interests and values?

If you believe your school is unlawfully silencing you, please contact us. We welcome the opportunity to listen. We encourage you to ask your school board members to permit live public comment and explain to them why your voice matters. We support you in your fight to be heard.

Melissa Deleon is the equity staff attorney for the ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties.