LAND O’ LAKES — The Pasco County School Board has a problem.
It wants to hold a public hearing, so its attendance boundaries for northwest county elementary schools can be settled for the next academic year.
But at least one board member is balking at conducting a meeting in person at 6 p.m. Tuesday, in the middle of the nation’s concerted effort for people to stay away from one another to stem the spread of coronavirus.
“I feel like we are subjecting people to a potential health situation,” said board member Alison Crumbley, who argued that the session should be conducted telephonically.
She pointed to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ March 20 executive order, which gave government bodies authority to meet virtually to conduct business. It waived the quorum requirements in statute, but stressed that other aspects of the Sunshine Law, such as public comment, must be met.
Crumbley suggested the board has other ways to hear from residents, rather than gathering in a room. The Miami-Dade County School Board, for example, accepted emailed comments up to 24 hours before its March 31 session and had those words read into the record.
She wanted to consider such options.
Board attorney Dennis Alfonso cautioned against such a move — at least at first.
While expressing empathy for Crumbley’s concerns, Alfonso stated that the governor’s order cannot override the board’s own policy requiring three members be present to conduct a meeting.
“We’ve got to have the board meet to act, to lift its own rules. ... I just need three members in the room,” he said, adding that others could participate from afar as they deliberate processes for future meetings during social distancing.
But beyond that, he said, the board has action items coming that call for strict adherence to Florida’s open meeting regulations.
The district’s bond counsel has advised the board to meet publicly to consider refinancing a bond issuance, so the transaction could withstand any challenge. And Alfonso wants a transparent public process for the school boundary revisions, noting the district has faced legal challenges in the past over rezonings.
“People are emotionally invested in those,” he said. “I want to be sure we aren’t vulnerable.”
Other board members said they want to be cautious.
Vice chairman Allen Altman, for instance, said he’s willing to give an in-person meeting a chance. But he wants assurances that there will be ample space between participants, and that the public has a chance for input, though not necessarily face-to-face with the board.
Chairwoman Colleen Beaudoin agreed it would be safer to have public comment submitted electronically, but also did not want to limit residents from taking part in the process.
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“We need to have things done in the Sunshine, and yet still maintain the safety of everyone,” Beaudoin said. “I’m comfortable with meeting and spreading out.”
Board members Cynthia Armstrong and Megan Harding were on a similar page. They stressed the importance of continuing to conduct important public business and not calling off meetings.
They said it would instill confidence that the board is properly overseeing taxpayer funds and not ignoring residents’ views.
“We can’t not do it,” Harding said. “Business has to go on.”
To that end, the administration devised a meeting setup that aims to maintain both distancing and public involvement.
Instead of convening in its usual chamber in Building 3 of the district headquarters, the board will gather in a larger room in Building 2 next door. Only the board members, superintendent, attorney, board secretary and a video specialist will be in the room.
Anyone else who attends will be sent to a separate room, where they can watch the proceedings on television. If they wish to comment, they will be allowed to enter the meeting room one at a time.
For those who want to participate but not attend, the district will live-stream the meeting on its website. Residents can submit comment in writing via the district’s online portal, or send an email or letter to the district.
To ensure board members see the information, the district recommends sending written comments by 5 p.m. Monday. Those will be included in the official record.
Alfonso said the model, which is similar to what the Hillsborough County School Board did on March 31, should meet all the needed requirements. Crumbley wasn’t convinced it will be safe enough and was contemplating attending via teleconference.
Or she might attend in mask and gloves, she said, to spark conversation about how the board will run its next meetings during the pandemic. It is scheduled to consider canceling its April 21, May 16 and June 19 sessions, and to add meetings on May 5 and June 2.
Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at email@example.com.
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