After promising to involve the public in future planning, the Menlo Park City School District invited a lawyer to a board meeting June 13 to explain why the public can legally be excluded from some of those discussions.
On June 7, Superintendent Maurice Ghysels presented the school board with a proposal to involve the public in planning the future of the district.
It was something the board had promised to do in May, after two parcel taxes failed to reach the two-thirds' voter approval threshold required for passage.
But the superintendent invited an attorney to the June 13 board meeting to explain why some new committees the superintendent wants to form to look at options for the future of the district aren't required to be open to the public.
Deputy County Counsel Tim Fox, who serves as the district's "in-house" attorney, came to the meeting to talk about California's open meetings law, the Brown Act.
School boards, like city councils or planning commissions, must do their business in public -- announcing meetings in advance, and making public the agendas and other documents given to the board. Limited exclusions exist for legal and personnel matters and labor negotiations.
Mr. Ghysels had proposed expanding three existing committees and adding two new ones to discuss issues including the district's finances, its use of technology, better ways to communicate with the public, ways to attract and retain teachers and other staff, and ways to balance the budget, including with a parcel tax.
Mr. Fox said that three of those committees -- the board's existing audit and technology committees and a new board task force on employee recruitment and retention -- will be governed by the Brown Act and require public notice, agenda and document posting, and open meetings.
Two superintendent's committees, which will look at the way the district communicates with the public and at ways to balance the budget, are not governed by the Brown Act, Mr. Fox said. That means they don't need to have their meetings announced and can take place in private.
The difference, Mr. Fox told the board, is that a committee formed by the board, with members appointed by the board, is subject to the Brown Act. "The bottom line is this, when the board itself decides it needs an advisory body," establishes it and sets its meeting time "the rule is the Brown Act will apply to that committee," Mr. Fox said.
"Other advisory committees not created by the board," he said, "don't have to comply with the Brown Act." Instead, those committees, which can include board members as long as a majority of the board isn't on the committee, report their findings to the board at public meetings.
He also said that certain board committees, called "ad hoc advisory subcommittees" are not subject to the public meetings law if they are set up to only explore a limited subject for a limited amount of time, and have less than a quorum of board members.
Board members said having to comply with the Brown Act can be an administrative headache. "We don't want to slow down and create a bureaucracy," said board member Terry Thygesen. However, she said, since the findings of the superintendent's committees will be presented at public board meetings, that work will be done in public.
"The intent is to make sure everything we do, that the board is going to vote on, gets processed through public meetings with public input," said Ms. Thygesen.
Resident Joe Giarrusso agreed. "Having committees that are all tied to the Brown Act" can lead to a process taking more time, he said.
Board members also made sure, however, that even if the superintendent's committee meetings were not open to the public, that members of the public could serve on them.
"The reason for setting this up this way is so there can be additional engagement with the public outside of board meetings," said Ms. Thygesen.
On topics such as how district employees are attracted, compensated and retained, "I want to make sure that we've got a very clear understanding about this as a board and a community, and that we've had community members diving deeply into this," she said.
District resident Peter Carpenter, who said his uncle, Bud Carpenter, helped write the Brown Act, had another view. "What is legal is not necessarily what is wise," he told the board.
"My advice to you is to not take advantage of the ad hoc committee provision," he said. "The law sets a minimum standard. It does not prevent you from going beyond that standard."
"The public is not your enemy," Mr. Carpenter said.