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Remote viewing, public comment no longer an option for some SF school board meetings

The SF school board welcomed in-person public comment and three new commissioners on March 22, 2022. | Sarah Wright

The San Francisco Board of Education is going back to the before times—at least when it comes to the way it conducts special sessions and committee meetings.

During the height of the pandemic, when gathering indoors for hours on end was considered a public health hazard, the school district made every Board of Education meeting accessible remotely. But starting this month, many smaller meetings of the Board of Education will have no remote attendance option. Three such meetings are scheduled for this week, including Wednesday’s highly-anticipated budget committee meeting, where commissioners are scheduled to hear a report on ongoing SFUSD payroll errors.

The sudden change comes with the sunsetting of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s pandemic emergency order N-1-22, which waived a number of requirements for public meetings, and has some crying foul.

For those who wanted to be more engaged with their community but lacked the time and energy, live online access to public meetings was a silver lining of the pandemic. Most regular meetings and committee meetings of the Board of Education kick off at 5 p.m. at SFUSD headquarters—located at 555 Franklin St. near City Hall. That makes attending the meetings in person difficult for many working adults, especially families and people with disabilities.

Some, like Rex Ridgeway, interim chairperson of the SFUSD Citizen’s Bond Oversight Committee, say losing virtual attendance options is a blow to transparency. “It’s like going back inside of a cave,” said Ridgeway, who cares for his granddaughter enrolled in the district. 

While both regular and committee meetings of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors will continue to allow in-person and virtual public comments, the school district said it cannot provide that option for board committee meetings for the time being.

In March, Superintendent Vincent Matthews told board members that having hybrid committee meetings—with both in-person and virtual participation—would require more staff and likely more funding. He added that the district would “figure it out” if the board instructed administrators to go in that direction. 

SFGovTV provides technical support for the regularly scheduled Board of Education meetings, which are currently held every second and fourth Tuesday of the month. The Board of Education held its first meeting with an in-person audience on March 22, though most public commentators participated virtually.

The audio from committee meetings will be made available after the meetings are held, SFUSD spokesperson Laura Dudnick said, not specifying whether live virtual viewing or public comment would ever return.

Ridgeway said posting an audio file of committee meetings after they have concluded was “not good enough,” adding that he couldn’t understand why the district couldn’t continue to provide the “live Zoom option” for the public.

Board of Education Vice President Kevine Boggess acknowledged the “big burden” on staff and said it was hard to see it happening before the board picks a new superintendent—a decision that is expected to come down next month. But he said it’s the board’s intention to bring back virtual participation to committee meetings and that a clear policy to bring it back by the fall semester is needed.

“We want to make sure meetings are accessible and transparent,” Boggess said.