The Tempe Union High School District Governing Board is welcoming the public back – kind of.
District Superintendent Dr. Kevin Mendivil said that beginning with the board’s next meeting April 21, people who want to address the board will be allowed to do so in person for the first time in more than 13 months.
Speakers will be allowed during the call to the public to come into the board meeting room one at a time to have their say, but will not be allowed as spectators.
While some East Valley school boards for several months have been allowing a limited number of spectators to sit socially distanced with masks at meetings, both Kyrene and Tempe Union governing boards have allowed no spectators and have restricted citizen comments to emails.
Depending on the volume of emails, both boards at time have cut reading of emails mid-sentence after limiting a reading of each email to a minute instead of the normal three minutes citizens usually get to speak their mind.
Downward data on COVID-19 explains Tempe Union’s change of heart.
Mendivil said the board will still read emails, but said the district is loosening its no-attendance-in-person policy a tad “based on current trends and believing that the district’s benchmark metrics will be in the moderate range for community transmission as defined by the Maricopa County Department of Public Health and Centers for Disease Control.”
“In order to observe guidance from the state and federal officials regarding social distancing, the governing board room will be closed to the public at all other times,” Mendivil said. “At the appropriate time for the public to comment, individuals will be allowed into the governing board room one at a time to deliver their comments. Please note masks are still required when on district property and will be required to deliver an in-person public comment.”
Board Vice President Andres Barraza thanked Mendivil “for looking into this and seeing how we can move forward and what it would take” to reopen board meetings for public attendance.
“I think it’s a part of the easing and so I appreciate that,” he said. “I’m sure everyone appreciates it and community that you’re looking into it.”
Some emails read at the board meeting specifically criticized that policy – as well as the district’s continuation of online learning only on Wednesdays to allow for deep cleaning.
“There has never been validity for closing our school board meetings,” one parent’s email stated in part. “Surrounding districts have found ways to keep meetings open and it is critical that our board hear directly from its community.”
Regardless of whether citizens comment by email or in person, board members, like their counterparts on city and town councils in Arizona, are forbidden from commenting or answering them if the topic is not on the agenda. However, board members can direct the administration to look into a matter brought up by a citizen.
School boards and other public bodies closed meetings to public attendance 13 months ago as the pandemic began holding Arizona in its grip. Even when some boards and other bodies began meeting in person, many still continue to ban citizens from in-person attendance. Among them is Phoenix City Council.
Arizona’s top prosecutor in March 2020 advised state and local agencies that they could rely on technology, such as Zoom, to meet their legal obligations under the Open Meeting Law in the face of COVID-19.
Attorney General Mark Brnovich issued an informal legal opinion that even if boards and other bodies meet at a central location, they could still ban public attendance to minimize the risk of spreading disease.
The key, he said, is public notice — and lots of it far in advance of any meeting.
The whole purpose of that, Brnovich said, is to tell people how they can attend − or at least view − public meetings by informing them of when and where to go and how to get information about what matters are going to be up for discussion.
That, he said, starts with a statement on a public agency’s website informing people that there will be a meeting held remotely through technological means. If the meeting will be telephonic, then people need a number to call in to be able to hear.
Conducting a meeting remotely, Brnovich said, requires special considerations that wouldn’t be important for those conducted in the same room with members of the public present.
For example, he said, any members of the public body should identify themselves each time they begin speaking. Ditto, he said, of staffers, other presenters and members of the public.
If there are to be presentations, copies of those should be available on the website.
None of this, Brnovich said, alters the fact that nothing in state law actually
requires public bodies to allow members of the audience to speak as long as they are allowed to witness what business takes place.