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SAN DIEGO – The San Diego Unified School District this week launched a new initiative proposed by local civil rights activist Shane Harris geared toward helping people who want to participate in school board meetings from home.

The program, called “Boost Democracy,” is an open government campaign which establishes a text message notification system to alert people when the issue they care about is coming up in a meeting. Its intention is to save people from spending hours watching meetings while waiting for their chance to speak up.

San Diego Unified is the county’s first government agency to implement the system. It will be used at the district’s next school board meeting on July 13.

Harris, the architect behind the campaign, is advocating for other government agencies to adopt the policy as well, including the city of San Diego, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors and the county’s Board of Education. It stems from lessons learned during the pandemic, which Harris argues made government meetings more accessible but not necessarily more efficient.

“Across this county, there is going to be controversial issues or challenging issues,” Harris, the president of the People’s Association of Justice Advocates, said in a joint news conference Thursday. “Everybody’s voice deserves to be heard, and this is why this is important.”

It is not the only part of the campaign, Harris said. He also is calling on government agencies to allow people to pre-record public comments to be played during meetings. Several other local civic groups are advocating for the policy such as Moms Demand Action, The California Charter Schools Association and the Latino American Political Association.

“We can innovate public meetings in a post-COVID-19 world,” Harris said.

Richard Barrera, president of the San Diego Unified school board, said the past year has made it more possible for people to participate in key district decisions. The district intends to keep holding board meetings over Zoom for that reason, even as San Diego Unified welcomes students, teachers and staff back into schools, Barrera said.

He called Harris’ campaign “a boost to people’s ability to participate.” District officials plan to ask people who sign up to speak on agenda items if they would like to be notified prior to it coming up.

“The reason that’s so important is we know our board meetings are often very busy and have a lot of different topics,” he said. “We can go two, three or more hours in a board meeting. People sign up to speak on a topic and they just don’t know when an item is gonna come and often have to wait an hour or two hours for an item to come up on an agenda.”