The San Dieguito Union School District board and staff walked out of the board room during a meeting on Nov. 1 as SDUHSD President Beth Hergesheimer said she could not get control over public comment. This was not the first time where public comment led to an issue at a meeting, but leaving the room was a new strategy used in an attempt to bring order back to the board room.
In a letter to the board following the meeting, former district parent Wendy Gumb said while she appreciated the attempt to establish protocol and to establish a fair forum for the public to express their views, she questioned whether the board walking out was a violation of community member Rita Raden’s right to speak.
“We definitely allow public comment on any topic during our ‘Public Comment’ portion of the agenda, and Ms. Raden was provided multiple opportunities to speak to both agenda and non-agenda items during the course of our meeting,” Hergesheimer said.
While the board walked out during Raden’s public comment that Hergesheimer said was not on the agenda topic, Raden addressed the board during public comment before the board’s closed session meeting and five other times during the regular meeting.
At board meetings, there is an opportunity for the public to speak for three minutes on items both on and off the agenda. When people go over the time, Hergesheimer must cut them off or remind them to finish their thought. At last month’s meeting, teacher Duncan Brown went well over his three minutes and an argument erupted from audience members Raden and Lea Wolf about the fairness of him going over the allotted time and others being interrupted when they went over. Duncan continued to speak over the arguing and ignored Hergesheimer repeatedly asking him to wrap it up before he finally stopped.
At the beginning of the Nov. 1 meeting, Hergesheimer noted that they had about an hour’s worth of speaker slips and reminded speakers about the protocol.
“Rather than me trying to figure out when someone is finishing a thought or idea, when the bell rings, finish your sentence,” Hergesheimer said.
Wolf and Raden wanted to speak on “Student updates,” which is the student board members’ opportunity to talk about the things going on at their campuses. Both speakers began to address the recent tragic events on the Canyon Crest Academy campus. When informed that her comment was not on the topic, Wolf stopped speaking and said she would speak during public comment on non-agenda items. When Raden was called, Hergesheimer asked if it was in regard to student updates. “I’m updating students on student updates” and Hergsesheimer said she wasn’t sure about that but they would “give it a shot.”
When Raden began to speak about the recent suicide at Canyon Crest Academy and a former CCA teacher who was arrested in a child predator sting in Rancho Cucamonga, Hergesheimer cut her off with her gavel and warned that it was not on topic and the board would take a recess if she did not stop. Raden did not stop talking and Hergesheimer announced that the board was taking a five-minute recess and the entire board and staff walked out of the board room.
“We will be trying to have order in the board room,” Hergesheimer said when the board returned. “This is going to be a part of what our procedure will be if we can’t have people cooperate with the order that I’m calling for.”
Following the meeting, some community members, such as Gumb, questioned whether Raden’s free speech had been violated. Attorney and education activist Sally Smith pointed out in an email to the board that public is the first word in public schools.
“It is of great public interest to all when the government seeks to stifle the rabble-rousers who dare to challenge it. Those who suffer vilification and ostracism and yet, continue to speak exercising our First Amendment rights are to be commended,” Smith wrote.
Smith said that freedom of speech is not just for the opinions and views that are pleasant to hear.
“Dr. Haley and the school board should listen carefully to all speakers, because it is a public school system, and not just the domain of teachers and current parents,” Smith said. “The law is on the side of the people who strive to exercise their freedom of speech. If others - teachers, parents, individuals - don’t want to hear it they can leave the meeting.”
On Nov. 1, Raden addressed the board five times, speaking on topics such as the district’s escalating legal fees, special education and the requirements of a new chief financial officer—former CFO Dolores Perley has left the district for a new position in Northern California; at a past meeting Raden had questioned her qualifications. Hergesheimer interrupted Raden once more during one of her public comments, questioning whether it was on topic but allowing her to finish.
“It was very inappropriate,” Raden said of the interruption. “I have a first amendment right. You can disagree with me, you’re welcome to disagree, but let me speak.”
Torrey Pines High School parent Heather Dugdale wrote a letter to the board disagreeing with the statement that Raden’s rights had been violated and applauded the board for walking out. Dugdale wrote that while public comments from some people have made valuable points, the “constant verbal assault and firing squad” only “wrecks havoc” on the district.
Dugdale herself has been vocal at board meetings over the last several months in her criticisms of trustees John Salazar and Mo Muir.
In a letter responding to Smith and the board, outgoing trustee John Salazar, who was not in attendance at the meeting, said he would not have walked out had he been there.
“The public’s comments have been very powerful and have caused the district to change course many many times,” Salazar said. “I have had my share of criticism from the public and understand that it is the public’s right to have a difference of opinion, and to make sure I have heard it as well.”