Sacramento City district trustees vote to tighten bylaws over missed meetings

Sacramento City Unified School District trustees voted unanimously Thursday night to tighten their bylaws after discovering the district was paying thousands of dollars to board members for missed meetings in apparent violation of state law.

The action followed a Bee story in November reporting that some members over a 16-month period received compensation – at the current rate of $787.50 a month – regardless of whether they attended meetings.

Under state law, the district must reduce a trustee’s monthly stipend by the share of board meetings missed. Absences can be excused, but only when the full board authorizes them by resolution.

“Whenever there is an absence excused, we will publicly acknowledge it and vote on it,” board President Patrick Kennedy said of the decision.

The board has not followed that process for at least the last three years.

Under the state Education Code, a trustee may be paid for a missed meeting if the school board finds that he or she was engaged in service to the district, was sick, on jury duty or had an acceptable hardship. It also formalizes a practice begun soon after the Bee story appeared – requiring board members to sign in upon arrival and to note the time.

The district’s new rules are intended also to eliminate ambiguity in the law over what is a hardship. The rules describe hardship as “an activity which is serious in nature, cannot be reasonably disregarded, or can only be performed during the time of the meeting. Absences for social or recreational activities are not defined as a hardship.”

In a related action, trustees then passed a resolution enabling three board members, Kennedy and trustees Diana Rodriguez and Christina Pritchett, to keep payments already received for a combined 10 meetings missed between January 2011 and November 2013. Half of those repayment waivers were tied to hardships such as employment obligations and, in one case, bereavement. The other five were tied to illnesses or performing district services during meetings.

The board president in December initiated an audit to compare attendance and compensation records for the calendar years 2011, 2012 and 2013. The task was expected to go quickly.

But the effort soon was hampered by inconsistent minutes that often failed to detail who was absent before closed-door meetings – when roll call typically occurs – and who merely arrived late. Under state law, board members are entitled to compensation if they attend any part of a meeting.

This week, district officials worked to complete the audit amid initial uncertainty and confusion over how much money board members must repay. Partial audit results released early this week showed that current and former board members missed more than 40 open meetings in the three-year span and many more closed sessions.

But several board members questioned reports of absences, since the missed meetings often were based often on the lack of actual attendance information.

“Some of the data was hard to come by,” Kennedy said in an interview Wednesday. “That also brought up a need for us to do a better job with our technology” so that all agenda minutes are posted on the district website.

Gabe Ross, district spokesman, said in an email the district’s audit calculated attendance “based on all evidence available to the district.”

“If a Board member was not present at the call to order at the beginning of the meeting, there was no notation of their presence in the meeting minutes, or they could not independently verify their attendance in closed session, they were marked absent.”