SDUHSD board members concerned over email protocol in proposed handbook

The San Dieguito Union High School board’s governance handbook remains a work in progress, as the board could not come to consensus on proposed protocols to improve communication and to be able to work together “civilly and constructively.”

The handbook came before the board for approval for the second time at the board’s May 10 meeting. SDUHSD Trustee Joyce Dalessandro requested that the item be continued and for the board to meet in a special workshop to go over the language line by line.

The handbook’s contents were the result of a day-long governance workshop in February with Luan Burman Rivera, a consultant from the California School Boards Association. Burman Rivera put together the handbook with the board’s input that day (SDUHSD Trustee John Salazar was not in attendance) to be approved and signed off on by all board members.

“Most boards have protocols, we have none,” said SDUHSD President Beth Hergesheimer, who has been working since 2016 to get this handbook drafted. Hergesheimer said the handbook is not exhaustive and is a work in progress in which future boards can continue to tweak and review the protocols.

Hergesheimer said the document aims to help the board members get over the “stumbling blocks” they have encountered in how their meetings progress, but members of the public and some board members took issue with the intent of some of the protocols such as board members asking questions of staff in advance and recommendations on dealing with emails from the public.

In regard to responding to community concerns via email the handbook states: “When board members receive an email either individually or as a group, they will thank the individual for the message and inform the sender that they are forwarding the email to the superintendent so that he can deal with the issue appropriately.”’

The superintendent will then keep the board members informed on what steps have been taken to address the matter.

“This handbook is ridiculous,” said parent Rita McDonald during public comment. “It’s outrageous to tell a constituent to go talk to staff which is what this handbook does. Each of you were elected by and represent these very same constituents. It’s the job of school board trustees to talk to constituents in the district and personally advocate for them and their students.”

Parent Lea Wolf also had objections to the protocol as she has complained to the board at several board meetings about her emails being passed around among the board and district staff with many of her questions going unanswered or acknowledged.

“I oppose this as a policy because what you’re trying to do is create a barrier and continue practices of stalling responses, ignoring them and dismissing them,” Wolf said. “It’s not constitutional that we cannot talk to the board of trustees.”

SDUHSD board members John Salazar and Mo Muir agreed with the public comments and were strongly against the idea of responding to a parent’s email or question with just “Thank you for your letter, I’m going to forward you to the superintendent.”

“I thought this was restrictive,” Muir said. “I was at the meeting and I don’t remember ever agreeing to anything like this.”

“We’re elected to these positions and I think people expect my opinion on things,” Salazar said. “It basically takes all the board members off the hook of having to have an opinion on doing what they’re hired to do by the taxpayers.”

Hergesheimer said the intent is to recognize that the board’s authority is when they are all together, not individually. She said that the proposed language does not prohibit a board member from intervening or continuing to follow up on an issue.

“It’s not that we don’t want to talk to constituents or hear from them or respond to them. It’s to avoid giving them the false impression that we have individual authority to solve their problems or we have all the information that we need to solve a problem,” said trustee Amy Herman. “That’s why we need to work with, and through, our superintendent who does know the process and who to direct it to. We can take those concerns and share those concerns with staff but we cannot individually fix those problems.”

Salazar and Muir also had concerns about the handbook’s proposed protocol on advising board members to ask questions in advance of the meetings.

“We believe in the concept of ‘no surprises’” the handbook states. Asking questions in advance “enables staff to be prepared to provide the information needed to make informed decisions and enables board members to be prepared to deliberate in advance.”

Salazar said he thinks they should encourage board members to pull items from the consent agenda that are unique and that they would like more information about, like he did with the charging stations the board voted on that night. He said staff should never be “surprised” because the items are on the agenda.

“By us passing this, we are just handcuffing future board members,” Salazar said.

“These are not laws, these are just working agreements and guidelines for how we work,” Hergesheimer clarified. “When we say ‘no surprises’ it doesn’t mean you can’t think of something and ask a question of staff in the meeting.”

Hergesheimer said the intent is to help manage meetings and ensure they run efficiently—when possible, board members should ask questions ahead of the meeting. Salazar said he frequently does but doesn’t always get responses right away.

Muir requested that an item be added regarding disclosing personal relationships when contracts are being approved and Dalessandro said there were a few places in the document that were not quite what the board intended—she suggested tabling the handbook so the board could fully review and discuss it.

“I believe that it’s important for the board to get this done soon and prior to the next election,” SDUHSD Superintendent Eric Dill said. “This way after the next election, whatever the board makeup will be, there will at least be a foundation to work with and if they don’t like it they can change it.”