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Citizens' Group Charges Local Boards Often Violate State 'Sunshine' Laws

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Local school boards often violate state open-meeting laws by improperly using private sessions to conduct business, according to a report compiled by a national citizens' group.

Decrying what its authors say is a rise in "backroom politics" in government generally, the study concludes that "even groups as close to the heart of the community as the board of education have established the habit of gathering and voting in private."

The report was released last month by the National Committee for Citizens in Education, which promotes parental involvement in public schools. Officials there stressed last week they did not feel school-board members "purposely subvert" open-meeting statutes.

Nancy Berla, director of the parent "help line" at the NCCE and co-author of the report, said most violations occur when boards go into closed sessions without giving a valid reason allowed under law.

"I don't think it's really malicious or anything like that," she said.

Most so-called "sunshine" laws strictly define the subjects that may be considered in a closed session--personnel decisions or pending litigation, for example.

NSBA's Advice

Officials at the National School Boards Association agreed it is possible that many board members break such laws unknowingly.

"We have no evidence that school boards are deliberately trying to evade open-meeting laws," said Jeremiah Floyd, associate executive director of the NSBA.

In "Becoming a Better Board Member," a handbook published by the NSBA, the organization acknowledges that board members' ignorance can lead to infractions.

"Although the [sunshine] laws have been widely legislated, it is evident that many board members are still unaware of the requirements of the law, and do not always work within it," the guide says.

Ms. Berla said the NSBA's handbook is "generally pretty good." But the new report criticizes the association's guide in one instance.

Because going into a closed session at the time of a regular board meeting often "arouses suspicion in the minds of the citizens present,'' the NSBA guide advises going into closed session "prior to the regular public meeting."

Calling this "curious advice," the NCCE report notes that it would be illegal in many states. Many open-meeting laws specifically state that closed sessions may be held only if the board first publicly votes to hold such a meeting.

Efficiency Versus Openness

The citizens' group also cites "anecdotal evidence" from anonymous board members who complain that public meetings can be awkward or inefficient.

"School-board members ... don't like to look stupid, and you can do so real easily asking Dick and Jane questions that in fact need to be asked about a complicated issue," says one member quoted in the report.

Another is quoted criticizing open-meeting laws because they are impractical: "From a board member's point of view, we'd be better off without them. They decrease efficiency and make it more difficult to do our job."

While Ms. Berla acknowledged there may sometimes be "a tradeoff" between a board's efficiency and open-meeting laws, she said the public's right to know overrides a board's desire for smooth operations.

"School boards are obligated to transact their business in the sunshine," she said.

The NCCE report also faults many states' open-meeting laws. Some define too broadly subjects that may be considered in closed sessions, it argues, while others do not provide sufficient public notice of meetings beforehand or allow for adequate public participation during meetings.

The 21-page report also has a lengthy appendix that summarizes open-meeting laws in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. It was published with the support of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Copies of "Beyond the Open Door" are available for $10 each, plus $2 postage and handling, from the NCCE, 10840 Little Patuxent Parkway, Suite 301, Columbia, Md. 21044.

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