FREE SPEECH -- A media law attorney says the
president of the Alameda County Board of Education violated the state's
open meeting law when she refused to let members of the public speak
before the board voted last week to conditionally renew FAME Public
Charter School's charter, reports Linh Tat in the Contra Costa Times.

Jacki Fox
Ruby, who has come under fire by some community members for her
decision, maintains she did nothing illegal because individuals had
their chance to speak at two public hearings late last year. Those who
missed the previous meetings should not be granted exceptions, she said.

"I
believe in the democratic process, and I understand that people are
upset. But they also have to follow the process," she said.

FAME,
which serves predominantly immigrant families from the Middle East and
Southeast Asia, has campuses in Fremont and San Leandro and serves more
than 1,400 students throughout the Bay Area. It plans to launch the
country's first Arabic-English immersion program and had applied for a
five-year charter renewal.

After the board voted 5-2 to
conditionally approve extending the charter, Maram Alaiwat, FAME's
executive director, said in a statement that the board "is truly
recognizing our record of academic success and service to underserved
Bay Area communities. ... We will continue to provide high-quality,
innovative educational opportunities to best serve the Bay Area's
diverse communities."

Although the board granted a charter extension some
trustees continued to express concerns about FAME's business practices,
following an audit last year that found that the school failed to
report the full wages of its executive director on state and federal
tax forms and overcompensated her in benefits. Alaiwat said
some of the errors resulted from miscommunication with the county
education office, which handled payroll for FAME, and that such issues
have been resolved.

The audit included 42 recommended corrective measures.In
granting the charter renewal, the board set a condition that FAME must
implement all the changes by March 1, or the school will shut down
after June.

Before the vote, some people arrived at the meeting
expecting to speak. But the board president said she did not allow
comments because there were 200 people in attendance, and the board
already had received a binder full of letters from people commenting on
the issue.

"We already had the public hearing in November. "... I
didn't feel — (and) staff didn't feel — it was right to then open it up
again because we had not announced (on the agenda) that we would have
people speak once again," Ruby said.

When asked who at the county
Office of Education she had consulted, Ruby said, "I don't think that's
pertinent. ... Let us not make a big brouhaha because that harms any
educational entity."

Sheila Jordan, superintendent of the Alameda
County Office of Education, did not attend the meeting but said she had
consulted with the associate superintendent of business and legal
counsel and spoken with Ruby before the meeting.

"As a public
official, I think it's always important to be as inclusive as possible.
However, "... as I told (Ruby), my understanding is the prerogative was
hers. The law did not demand that she have a full additional hearing.
That's how it's been explained to me," Jordan said.

But Jim
Ewert, legal counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers
Association, said Ruby's interpretation of the law is "inconsistent
with the state Constitution."

"The board president's action limited the right of public access," he said.If
people start to repeat points already made, "then the board president
at that time could appropriately ask that people limit their comments
to new points. But that's not what happened. The president just
summarily cut off discussion. There was no way she could have known if
there would have been new discussion," Ewert said.

Although a
public hearing was held in November, the board did not discuss FAME's
audit — and the questionable findings — until December.

"Now, in
the first meeting since the audit was discussed, people wanted to talk
about whether the charter should be renewed in light of that
information. I just don't see the harm in it," Ewert said.

The officials are wrong, and so is any attorney who advised them they
could dispense with public comment in this situation. The issue is not "hearings" but the opportunity to speak to any item on the agenda under the
Brown Act. That law allows a governing body to deny public comment if
the matter has been heard previously by a committee and there has been
no substantial change in the item. It does not allow the body to simply
deny public comment because the item has been before it earlier and
citizens commented then.