Pajaro Valley Unified School District
Trustees of the Pajaro Valley Unified School District will take up proposed bylaw changes next week.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
K-12 Education

In wake of outcry and infighting, PVUSD board will consider bylaw changes

Next week trustees governing the Pajaro Valley Unified School District will consider a list of possible policy changes — including restricting public comment time and docking trustee pay for unexcused absences.

Trustees governing the Pajaro Valley Unified School District are weighing a list of possible changes to their own bylaws as fallout continues from the outcry and infighting ignited by the brief firing of the district’s superintendent in January.

Reworking or restricting the amount of time allotted for public comments is among the changes the elected board plans to consider Wednesday, even as one trustee has already warned that the public might not take too kindly to such changes.

Docking trustee pay for unexcused absences and restricting anonymous public comments during remote meetings are also under consideration, as is giving the board’s student trustee a symbolic vote.

Some items on the list are in response to pressure from the public or trustees themselves. And some, the board’s review of state policy revealed, are overdue — and necessary to stay in step with California education code.

“Looking at this provides an opportunity for us as a board to look at how we conduct our business, how we can do better, and how we can better serve the public,” PVUSD board president Jennifer Holm told Lookout. “And, you know, it is addressing those [recent] issues.”

The changes were discussed at a study session this past Wednesday. They will be brought to the board at its meeting this coming Wednesday for an initial vote. Trustees would then consider finalizing any changes at their following meeting, on June 9.

Here’s what to know about key changes under consideration.

Restrictions on public comment time and anonymous comments

Individual public comments during trustee meetings are currently capped at three minutes. The board has discretion to lower that to two minutes, or even one minute, based on the number of commenters.

Board bylaws also limit the total public comment time per agenda item to 20 minutes and give the board president discretion to extend that time for particularly popular or important items. In practice, however, that 20-minute cap is rarely enforced. Public comment periods have turned into multihour marathons several times this year alone, especially amid a wave of outcry after the Jan. 27 firing of Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez.

Trustees are now considering lowering the time limit on single comments from three minutes to two, while raising the total time limit per agenda item from 20 minutes to 30.

Trustee Kim De Serpa told her colleagues this week she has reservations about the proposal. “It’s not going to go over well, I’ll tell you right now,” she said at a Wednesday study session. “The public is not going to stand for that.”

In another possible move likely to have diminishing impact as the board moves back to in-person meetings, trustees will weigh whether to require those submitting comments ahead of remote meetings to also submit their name or email address.

Commenters during remote meetings amid the pandemic hadn’t been subject to any kind of identity verification or disclosure of personal information as they submitted comments via Google Doc or voicemail, and as the board dealt with the fallout around the superintendent firing, some of those anonymous comments amounted to personal attacks targeting individual trustees or district employees.

Holm said she respects the free speech rights of the public, but the experience raised concerns that some comments could be defamatory. “I think we can certainly request that name, you know, and have people stand behind what they’re saying, especially if they want it to be part of public record,” she told Lookout.

Docking pay when trustees miss meetings

Frequent absences from the board came into focus when trustee Georgia Acosta was censured by her colleagues in March for a litany of issues. She had missed 26 meetings since her election in 2016, according to the resolution enacting her censure. An ongoing campaign to recall Acosta from her seat has made her shaky attendance record a central issue.

Georgia Acosta, Area II trustee in the Pajaro Valley Unified School District.
(Pajaro Valley Unified School District)

Under the board’s current bylaws, trustees are able to earn the same monthly stipend — $400 — regardless of their attendance record. That’s inconsistent with California education code, which requires that stipends be withheld each month proportionate to unexcused absences.

Trustees’ absences can be excused only if they are otherwise attending to board business, ill, on jury duty, or due to a “hardship considered acceptable by the board,” per state code.

Clarifying legal representation

Another issue brought into the public eye this year relates to the board’s legal representation.

In March, trustees voted against paying $16,000 in legal fees accrued during the brief ouster of Rodriguez in late January. Those fees were racked up by then-board president Acosta without approval from the board as a whole — involving services of a law firm that represents the district in some matters but doesn’t serve as its general counsel.

Some questions remain unanswered around which attorneys the board can consult with, and when. Trustees could add some clarifying language — such as language spelling out that the board should seek legal counsel only from a list of previously approved firms. Or the board could opt to leave the bylaws alone and instead seek more clarity about how they should be interpreted.

Giving student trustees a symbolic vote

PVUSD has a student trustee seated on the board in an honorary capacity, a one-year appointment offering a high school student a platform to speak directly with the public and an opportunity to keep up with board business from the inside.

State law prohibits student trustees from casting a vote that affect board business. But they are allow them to cast a symbolic vote prior to the formal roll call of elected trustees.

Moving forward, student trustees could be given the opportunity to cast that symbolic vote. With that might come additional requirements for the students such as going through more training or needing to review agenda packets in advance of meetings.