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Commentary: Cirque du LAUSD

Guest contributor | March 17, 2016

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Representatives from charter schools line up outside LAUSD headquarters for this month’s board meeting.

By Nick Melvoin

Last week’s Los Angeles Unified School Board meeting was a political circus. Scores of parents, students and advocates in a packed boardroom vied for a chance to speak as the board debated their futures in real time. And while the politics may interest an arm-chair social scientist—“everyone is in such a bunkered battleground” as board President Steve Zimmer put it, before climbing back into his bunker and abstaining on the most contentious vote of the day—our children deserve better than a trip to the circus. Putting aside the merits of the issues discussed, the manner in which the board makes its decisions—and, superficially at least, invites community input—is absurd.

Parents, students and teachers waited more than eight hours to be given a chance to speak. And their futures were left to a process by which the board “cobble[d] together a plan, concocting at least half a dozen proposals and amendments during a lengthy and at times contentious discussion.” And this comes months after the school had to submit their petition.

Unfortunately, dysfunction is the norm, not the exception, for school board meetings. When schools are up for renewal, parents—many of whom have to take hours if not the entire day off work to advocate for their children—often line up starting at daybreak. In many cases, they don’t speak until late in the day, if at all. Parents and community stakeholders are left outside for hours or are relegated to an “overflow” room where they can watch the board meeting (unless, of course, the live stream doesn’t work). And despite stories of parents who are unable to speak after hours of waiting, board members at times let their supporters speak even when resolutions are postponed or abandoned.

Democracy is messy, but it doesn’t have to be dysfunctional. And despite lip-service about the need to engage parents and the community, nothing says “we don’t want your input” more than making parents line up at 5 a.m. to maybe, just maybe, get two minutes to speak before midnight.

When I was a teacher, I streamlined processes to ensure instructional time wasn’t lost and my students and I had a clear understanding of what was expected of us. I encourage the school board to do the same.

Here are a few ideas for new processes that could increase parent engagement and allow for more productive board meetings.

1)    Enforce a “time certain” for agenda items, so that parents and other stakeholders don’t have to line up at dawn to speak for an item that won’t be discussed until 5 p.m. For example, the public would know in advance that Resolution A is being discussed from 1:15-1:25 p.m. This way speakers would have a window in which to advocate, and then could go on with their days.

2)    Allow speakers to sign up online. The current process, which seems to change depending on the mood of the board, requires attendees to pull a “speaker card” once they get to the board meeting, resulting in a mad dash for cards. A few days before the meeting, interested speakers should be able to sign up online and state their connection to the issue being discussed. If there are too many speakers for slots, the board could lottery them in a way that ensures stakeholders from different sides of an issue are heard.

3)    Rotate meeting locations throughout the district. Rotating meetings throughout the district’s enormous geographic area would make it easier for parents, students and teachers to attend. And by using larger venues, such as a school’s auditorium, meetings could accommodate many times the number of attendees as the current board room. I would also consider scheduling agenda items that affect a particular community on dates when the board meeting will be held in or near that community. The board may also consider adjusting the starting times for meetings, to make it more convenient for working parents, students and teachers to attend.

4)    Ensure that proposals are crafted before a meeting and not during, so that meetings are a time for informed debate and not ad hoc policymaking. We have to work within the confines of the Brown Act, but it’s hard to imagine giving a proposal its due diligence in the few minutes between hearing it and voting on it.

Any one of these reforms would allow the board to function more efficiently and ensure that parents, students and teachers are respected as members of the decision-making process.

If readers have more suggestions, the next board meeting is April 12th. I’ll see you there at 5 a.m.

Nick Melvoin, a former LAUSD middle school teacher, is an attorney, teacher organizer and candidate for LAUSD School Board in District 4.

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