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San Diego Unified pilots ‘Boost Democracy’ texting initiative for school board meetings

Shane Harris discusses public participation in San Diego Unified School District board meetings July 8.
Shane Harris, president of the People’s Association of Justice Advocates, discusses an initiative to encourage public participation in San Diego Unified School District board meetings as board President Richard Barrera looks on July 8.
(Courtesy)

Community members can sign up to receive text messages to let them know when to speak during meetings.

The San Diego Unified School District is piloting a “Boost Democracy” texting initiative for public participation during school board meetings.

The program, set to start Tuesday, July 13, enables community members who plan to participate remotely in board meetings to sign up to receive texts alerting them when it’s time for their comments.

It is one of the first such initiatives in the nation, according to Shane Harris, president of the People’s Association of Justice Advocates, who pitched the idea. He also is urging the San Diego City Council, San Diego County Board of Supervisors and county Board of Education to adopt the feature.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, most local public meetings have been held virtually, often over Zoom. The public has been able to call in with comments but often has had to wait on hold until the appropriate times during the agenda, sometimes for hours, officials said.

San Diego Unified board President Richard Barrera said virtual board meetings have made the process of governing more accessible for the community, but meetings usually run for hours, leaving people waiting to speak because they are unsure when a topic will be brought up.

Too often people miss the opportunity to speak, he said, “and we as a board miss the opportunity to hear that public comment.”

The text program creates a more accessible and efficient structure for community virtual participation, Harris said at a news conference July 8.

“We didn’t meet this moment until the pandemic,” Harris said. “It turned all of these agencies into a telecommuting platform. And across the country, chambers were silent. But phone lines were loud; Zoom lines were loud.”

With the new initiative, when people sign up to speak they’ll be asked if they want to be notified before a particular agenda topic is discussed, Barrera said.

“This really helps the working mother,” Harris said, “because board meetings are packed with women and mothers, probably more than men. We need to be thinking about these hardships.”

Yusef Miller, an activist with the North County Equity and Justice Coalition, said the usual process does not allow college students, working parents or others with time constraints to readily participate in democracy.

“No matter where you come from, no matter what language you speak, no matter what your school, work or personal situation is, you are still part of democracy, and that’s what we’re about here,” he said. ◆


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