Moderated by Rick Badie
The DeKalb County School Board has a term for the process it adopted to respond to allegations of mismanagement by an accrediting agency: “administrative process.” The board chairman writes that the recommendation to name a team to draft a response to AdvancEd isn’t a private process. A media lawyer calls the response plan an attempt to exploit a loophole in Georgia’s Open Meetings Act.
DeKalb should open process
By Cynthia Counts
You would think you were watching a scene from “Alice in Wonderland” during a Sept. 5 meeting of the DeKalb County School Board.
First, as reported by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the board proclaimed that it desired to be as “transparent as possible.”
Yet it then announced that it would respond to a letter alleging mismanagement through a committee process that apparently will shut out the public.
Specifically, the board voted to approve a response plan and the creation of a “team” that includes two of the highest-ranking board members, the school superintendent, legal representatives and staff.
The next step in the board-approved plan is to convene the team for an initial meeting for the sole purpose of reviewing the letter.
Members of the team will draft a response that could affect accreditation of the board’s schools.
Worst yet, rather than presenting the draft to the full board in an open meeting, it will be provided to board members for their individual comments and responses.
This method of responding to the mismanagement allegations is, at best, an indication that the board is searching to find and exploit a loophole in Georgia’s Open Meetings Act.
At worst, it could be a violation of the law, which generally requires that meetings of school boards, and any committees they create, be open to the public if a majority of the committee members are present to conduct official business.
The team certainly is a board-created committee conducting official business; its initial meeting to review the letter should be open to the public.
Recent reports suggest neither the team nor the school board have any such intention.
Will recent public outcry result in public meetings by the board and debate on this important issue impacting DeKalb parents, taxpayers and voters?
Despite the de facto decision-making authority that has been given to the committee, the board is characterizing this process as “administrative.”
The law allows committee members to work together privately so long as less than a majority is present.
Additionally, the board members can give comments to committee members privately, one-on-one, such that there will never be a public record of this exchange.
In other words, the board is utilizing a process that will permit debate on the best response, as well as the ultimate approval of that response, to occur in secret.
This process is ripe for abuse and appears carefully crafted to avoid public scrutiny.
However it’s justified, excluding the public is not a good idea. The law does not allow meetings or proceedings to be closed just because unflattering topics will be discussed.
In fact, a primary purpose of the law is just the opposite, to require that important decisions and the decision-making process be open.
That way, the public can assess the work of public officials and expose any shortcomings.
The public should be permitted to hear — and be heard on — the allegations against the board and how they are going to be addressed.
This year, Attorney General Sam Olens pushed through revisions of the Open Meetings Act to strengthen the requirements that government meetings and proceedings be public and to limit spurious efforts to sidestep the law.
The board, by deciding to address its problems in secret, has certainly violated the sense and purpose of the law and its recent revisions.
The board should open its process, or the voters should look for a board that will.
Cynthia Counts is managing member of Atlanta-based Counts Law Group.
Public not barred from board’s process
By Eugene Walker
It is emphatically untrue that the DeKalb Board of Education decided it will meet behind closed doors in responding to allegations of mismanagement.
For the record, no such vote ever took place.
No such decision was ever made.
Equally untrue is that the board publicly approved a private process for responding to a letter sent by AdvancEd.
On Sept. 5, the board voted to accept the letter and approved an administrative process for responding to AdvancEd.
An administrative process is not a “private” process.
The board approved an administrative process that included naming a team to review and draft a response to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
This was necessary because the SACS letter was addressed to the superintendent — not to the board — and it was the administration that was obligated to respond.
Since the SACS letter cited unsubstantiated charges related to board governance, part of the administration’s recommendation was to share its response to SACS with board members.
Every day, the administration responds to correspondence from parents, citizens, educators and a host of public and private agencies.
This correspondence is never “private.”
Nor is the process for responding private to the extent that all correspondence, even drafts, are readily available under the Georgia Open Records Act.
Furthermore, when an individual, such as a parent, writes to the school system, the system responds to that individual.
When board member Paul Womack suggested in the Sept. 5 meeting that the board extend that same courtesy to Mark Elgart, president of AdvancEd, the board unanimously agreed with the clear understanding that the letter would be instantly available to the public.
How an administrative response to a letter, handled no differently than any other letter, would be deemed “private” is difficult to comprehend.
Let’s say, however, that this is a “closed” process because the administration was giving the board an opportunity to weigh in on the letter.
Even then, all correspondence between board members and the administration, including recommended revisions to the SACS letter, would be a matter of public record.
How then, has the board “barred” the public?
And what public agency in its right mind would cast a unanimous vote to do so in flagrant violation of state law?
We have not barred the public from the process.
We have not violated the letter or spirit of the Georgia Open Records Act or Open Meetings Act.
And we certainly did not and would not cast a unanimous vote — eight to zero — to do so.
Every member present voted to extend a courtesy to SACS that we extend to every correspondent with the full understanding that the letter would immediately be made available to the public.
And any suggestion to the contrary is just plain wrong.
Eugene Walker is chairman of the DeKalb County School Board.