The governing board of the Woodside Elementary School District has rescinded actions taken at a May 1 meeting that the Almanac had challenged as violations of the state's open meeting law, known as the Brown Act.
At the Tuesday, May 16, meeting, the board also completely revised the minutes for the May 1 meeting that had originally been submitted. The minutes that were part of the board's materials for the May 16 meeting did not match the actions the board took at the meeting, which the Almanac (and the district) had recorded.
The Woodside district board, as it had done on May 1, again voted on May 16 unanimously to appoint someone to the board to fill a vacancy left when board member Wendy Warren Roth resigned 18 months before the end of her term, this time with the matter on the agenda and after board discussion.
Ms. Warren Roth has not given a reason for her resignation, which she submitted on April 6, a day after the school district announced it would be appointing a new board member. The district already had a website page up to accept board applications with a deadline and schedule for interviews and appointments.
Appointing a board member to fill an uncompleted term allows the school board rather than the voters to choose who will serve in an elected office, and gives the appointed board member the advantage of running as an incumbent in her or his first election.
However, school board members said holding the election could cost as much as $20,000 and they did not want to spend the money. (The district board also heard at its meeting that the district's financial situation is robust enough that it anticipates adding $100,000 to its reserves in the 2017-18 fiscal year.)
The board's new deadline to apply for the open position is 4 p.m. Friday, May 26. Applications must be submitted in hard copy form to Superintendent Beth Polito's office at 3195 Woodside Road in Woodside. Any registered voter in the school district is eligible to hold the position.
Information and the application form are available on the school's website.
Orientation for those interested in the position will be held from 10 to 11:30 a.m. on two dates: Thursday, May 18, and Wednesday, May 24.
The candidates will be interviewed Friday, June 2, by a subcommittee made up of Superintendent Polito, board President Claire Pollioni and board Vice President Marc Tarpenning.
The board will deliberate and appoint a candidate in public at its Tuesday, June 6, meeting.
Brown Act complaint
The Almanac's Brown Act complaint came after a May 1 board meeting when, after a brief discussion about the cost and timing of holding an election rather than appointing a new member to fill the board vacancy, board members voted unanimously on a motion to "do an appointment process."
The deadline for applications, which had been announced weeks before the board's vote to make the appointment rather than hold an election, was four days later, on Friday, May 5.
The matter of whether to make an appointment or hold an election was not on the agenda for the May 1 meeting, which contravenes a Brown Act requirement that all actions voted on be on the meeting agenda. (See the Almanac's earlier story).
The agenda instead included three items as "discussion, action items": setting a deadline for submitting board member applications, appointing a subcommittee to review the applications, and setting a date for interviewing candidates. None of those items was voted on.
After the Almanac protested that the actions violated the Brown Act, the district put a hold on the appointment process.
The minutes for the May 1 meeting that were included with the May 16 meeting materials said this: "On a motion by Marc Tarpenning, seconded by Silvia Edwards, the Trustees approved setting a deadline for submission of applications for provisional appointment to the Board of Trustees, the appointment of a subcommittee to review applications, and setting a date for interviews of candidates for provisional appointment to the Board of Trustees by a 4-0 vote."
The revised minutes adopted by the board on May 16 say: "The Board of Trustees considered a recommendation made by the Superintendent to conduct a provisional appointment process as opposed to an election which could be costly to the District. The Board discussed the potential cost and timing of an election and chose to pursue a provisional appointment process. The subcommittee for review of applications was delineated as well as a candidate orientation and application process. On a motion by Marc Tarpenning, seconded by Silvia Edwards, the Trustees approved this recommendation for a provision appointment process by a 4-0 vote."
In a May 2 letter, Bill Johnson, president of the Almanac's parent company Embarcadero Media, asked Superintendent Polito and board President Pollioni to correct the apparent Brown Act violation by rescinding the action taken at the May 1 meeting, and holding a properly noticed board meeting to reconsider that item and the three not voted on.
The letter suggests the school district may have further violated the Brown Act by soliciting applications for the open board position before the board discussed the matter in public.
"Your solicitation of candidates for appointment to the Board well prior to your May 1 meeting indicates that either the Board had earlier violated the Brown Act by making its decision outside of a public meeting or that (the superintendent or school board president) had pre-judged the outcome of its May 1 meeting."
The school district's attorney, San Mateo County Chief Deputy County Counsel John Nibbelin, in a written response denied the May 1 meeting action violated the Brown Act, although his letter did not address the allegation that a matter not on the agenda was discussed and voted on.
Mr. Nibbelin's letter, written on behalf of County Counsel John Beiers, said the district's advertising of the opening before discussing how it would be filled in public was "District staff's reasoned consideration of the circumstances and conclusion that the Board of Trustees would most likely support a provisional appointment to fill the Board vacancy."
This will be the second time in two years that a board member has resigned before ending a term, allowing a board appointment. Current board member Silvia Edwards was appointed in May 2015, and was elected six months later in a three-person race for two seats, in which she ran as an incumbent.
Under the California Education Code, when school board members resign before their term is up, the board must either set an election or appoint an interim board member within 60 days.
If the board decides to appoint a board member, voters can ask for an election instead by filing a petition signed by 1.5 percent of the district's registered voters within 30 days of the appointment.
The district had 2,365 registered voters as of April 4, so valid signatures of just 35 voters would be required to hold a special election.
The Brown Act, adopted in 1953, is intended to assure the business of the public is conducted in public.
The introduction to the law says: "In enacting this chapter, the Legislature finds and declares that the public commissions, boards and councils and the other public agencies in this State exist to aid in the conduct of the people’s business. It is the intent of the law that their actions be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly. ... The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created."