Enrollment study group wraps up its work

Marsha Sutton

The fourth and final meeting of San Dieguito Union High School District’s enrollment study group was held Feb. 17 and was, as requested in my Feb. 5 column, open to the public, unlike the three previous meetings.

After referencing applicable Brown Act clauses as evidence that the meetings should be open, I asked the district what basis it had for closing the meetings.

That legal evidence was never forthcoming, even though district officials said counsel had been asked to provide support to back its position.

I maintain to this day that the closed meetings were illegal, and the district maintains to this day that it had every right to keep the meetings closed.

Once the decision was made to open the meetings to the public, apparently the directive to the lawyers was dropped.

Yet SDUHSD superintendent Rick Schmitt said at the Feb. 19 board meeting that the study group meetings were “not illegal and fully transparent.”

Although the point is now moot, it would be best not to continue to say the closed meetings were legal if evidence is not provided to support that position.

The issue remains relevant to ensure that future meetings don’t violate open meetings laws.

At SDUHSD’s Feb. 5 board meeting, trustee John Salazar advocated for open meetings, and asked, “How much is it costing the district to ‘lawyer up’ to defend against the view that the boundary meetings should be open?”

Trustee Maureen “Mo” Muir agreed. “We need transparency in the district with boundary meetings,” she said.

SDUHSD associate superintendent of educational services Mike Grove said, “It’s an ad hoc committee and not decision-making,” he said. “We can open it up, but is that in the best interest?”

“It’s ethical to open it up,” Muir responded, saying she’d like to attend the study group meetings.

Grove further justified the closed meetings, saying they were transparent because the district posted reports on its website after each meeting.

But how would the public know the reports were complete, without being present? Pre-screened information can be incomplete, misleading or non-descriptive. Debates need to be heard to gain a full understanding of what has transpired. Someone choosing which information to select for public disclosure is not transparency.

Study group member Sarah Gardner, who spoke at the Feb. 5 meeting, raised another reason why the meetings should remain closed. She said members would be reluctant to speak up and share their thoughts openly if they knew the press might be there to report what was said.

“The focus should be on the information instead of attacking the process,” Gardner said.

But at the open Feb. 17 study group meeting, it was clear that the presence of the public and the press did not deter a lively conversation and healthy debate about boundaries and enrollment. Members were actively engaged as they discussed all their options.

Comparing the open and closed meetings, several members said afterward they saw no difference in the level of engagement and free discussion.

Grove also argued that if the public and press only heard piecemeal discussions without the background given to members in the early meetings, incomplete or inaccurate information might be transmitted.

“Snippets only lead to greater confusion,” he said.

Ironically, at the conclusion of that fourth study group meeting, members all agreed that the public needed to be better informed of the facts and legal constraints facing the district.

Too bad the press and public weren’t allowed to sit in on the meetings from the start, so more information could have been disseminated earlier.

Next steps

The next step in the process, now that the study group meetings have concluded, is to reach out to the community directly.

In March, Grove held four “town hall” meetings to inform interested parents of the five boundary proposals under consideration, and provide foundational background information on the process and legal requirements associated with boundary changes and enrollment options.

He’ll hold several more town hall meetings for elementary families April 14 and 15, and the district will then conduct a survey of district and elementary families in late April.

“After that, I will see how complex the feedback is,” Grove said in an email.

The study group may reconvene (in another open meeting, hopefully) to review and analyze the feedback from the town hall meetings and surveys. That would likely be in May, Grove said. But another meeting is uncertain.

“I don’t want to have a meeting just to have a meeting,” he said. “If the group can help … then we’d meet. If there’s no real purpose to meet, then we wouldn’t.”

Grove hopes to present the information to the school board in June, for trustees to discuss, consider and make a final decision on possible boundary and enrollment policy changes.

The study group will make no recommendation.

The wrap-up

With the study group meetings concluded, consultant Leonard Steinberg has ended his contract with the district to facilitate the meetings.

Now that Steinberg’s services are no longer needed, the final bill has been tallied.

Grove said the total amount paid to Steinberg for facilitating the four meetings came to $22,452.50 – that’s 64.15 hours of work at $350 per hour.

Steinberg’s contract and his hourly rate were approved by the school board last year by a vote of 4 to 1, with Salazar opposed.

The vote was taken before Muir was seated on the school board. Since taking the oath of office, Muir – along with Salazar – has repeatedly objected to the cost to hire Steinberg, as have many in the community.

After witnessing a portion of the open fourth study group meeting, I felt Steinberg did a decent job, despite my criticism of his hourly rate.

Still, someone from the County Office of Education could certainly have led these meetings, at no charge, just as effectively. Twenty-two thousand dollars is a lot of money for a district that’s always scrambling for funds.

At the start of that fourth meeting, Steinberg moderated a discussion about the press, as members wanted to discuss whether the meetings should be open or closed.

A conversation about the proper role of the media is absolutely appropriate, given the controversy over the study group’s transparency. And a conversation about the content of my column calling for open meetings, also seems on task.

But how long should a skilled facilitator let a judgmental discussion continue in a large group format about one writer, criticizing her knowledge, motives and credibility?

Thanks to Rick Schmitt for calling a halt to the public pile-on and for recognizing that the subject was off-topic, inappropriate and a waste of both time and money – and thanks also to Mo Muir who offered a public apology on behalf of the board.

I’ve certainly been called worse things than a pot-stirrer and had my writing ability challenged, but is this really a topic worth $350 an hour of the district’s money?

— Marsha Sutton can be reached at suttonmarsha@gmail.com.