Thursday, August 13, 2009

Brown Act claims hit school board : Last-minute agenda addition draws criticism from the public and among the trustees


August 13, 2009 7:46 AM

After adding a monstrous attachment to an item on the agenda at the last hour, the Santa Barbara School Board Tuesday night found itself again accused of a Brown Act Violation.

The board attached an action plan only hours before the meeting to an item approving the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team's report on special education, approving of development of an action plan to address the team's recommendations and including approval of recommended additional special education expenses.

The action plan came with a staggering 153 recommendations, and the agenda allowed an estimated 80 minutes for action on the entire item -- the latter arousing outrage from members of the pubic and at least one board member, Dr. Robert Noel.

Karolyn Renard called adding the action plan last-minute, after having received the final team report June 23 a violation of the state's open meeting law, which requires public notice prior to government action and asked, "What about the discussion part? You think this is just fine?"

The board agreed, however, that more discussion needs to occur on the matter and decided to approve the convening of a self-selected representative stakeholders work group to review the categories of recommendations, consolidate any duplicates, identify responsible entities for implementation and establish a suggested priority timeline.

They also approved that the fiscal crisis team fulfilled its contractual obligations in developing a report and agreed to move forward with the intention to hold at least one workshop during which the action plan for the team's implementation will be discussed in a manner that allows public comment to be less limited.

One of the aspects of the action plan initially on the agenda to be approved was the hiring of an ombudsman at $12,000 per year.

Joan Esposito said during public comment that "$12,000 or even $24,000 is. . .nothing," and she would rather the board take no action on the matter than do it in a way that she saw as unsatisfactory.

Trustee Annette Cordero requested that the term be made gender neutral, and after her request, board members tried to keep the mood light when they humorously struggled to say "ombudsperson, ombudspeople and ombuds."

Trustee Susan Deacon said taking action on the ombudsman would be hasty. "I think we're moving too fast."

The board agreed and took no action on this point.

The theme of special education has been prevalent in the district, which has lost seven directors in eight years.

Tension between board members was apparent several times on the topic of the fiscal crisis team, particularly surrounding Dr. Noel, who was openly unhappy about having had little time to review the item.

He first suggested an amendment by asking that the stakeholders group be self-selected; this amendment passed.

When he said he wanted to make another amendment adding a confidentiality clause to the amendment for the stakeholders, Board President Kate Parker became visibly exasperated, causing Dr. Noel to become defensive.

"This is all happening very spontaneously," he said, leaning back and turning up his palms. This second amendment did not pass.

Craig Price, the board's legal counsel, also found himself at the center of a few tense moments.

At one point, when a board member referred to him with a procedural question, he was caught off guard while looking at his cell phone.

"He's texting!" could be heard from somewhere in the public section.

Later, Mr. Price told the News-Press that he didn't send any text messages during the meeting. Rather, he was using his Blackberry to look up board policy and provisions in government policy regarding the Brown Act.

Mr. Price was also caught in the middle of an exchange between Mrs. Parker and Ms. Renard, when Ms. Renard said she was officially "asking that inappropriate limitation of public comment" be added to the agenda.

Mrs. Parker said the request for an agenda addition would need to be written in accordance with board by-laws, to which Ms. Renard replied that state law does not require her to put it in writing. Mr. Price sided with Mrs. Parker.

Mrs. Esposito used the public comment time to accuse Dr. Donna Ronzone, principal of Roosevelt Elementary School, of delaying a child's assessment for "a couple of years."

Mrs. Esposito had mentioned the incident at previous meetings without using Dr. Ronzone's name.

Vice Chair Edward Heron told Mrs. Esposito that using a name in such a manner would inhibit what the board could do, which sparked Ms. Renard's request for an addition to the agenda.

"Since nothing had been done," said Ms. Renard, "she has a right to mention a person's name."

The board also approved a memorandum of understanding with the city of Santa Barbara to contract for crossing guards and approved the funding of crossing guards for partial school year coverage for the 2009-2010 school year.

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