Secrecy provisions in ‘distressed schools’ bill go too far

Indiana lawmakers may have been trying to do the right thing last week when they created a way for financially struggling school corporations to avoid being flagged for takeover by the state. But they went too far when they made those procedures secret.

The Senate Appropriations Committee voted to create new exceptions to the state’s public records and open meetings laws, limiting public scrutiny of efforts by local and state officials to turn around a school corporation’s finances before it gets placed on a state watch list.

Indiana Statehouse

Indiana Statehouse

As Steve Key of the Hoosier State Press Association pointed out, this isn’t just bad public policy – it’s likely to be counterproductive by blocking public participation in important government decisions.

“To me it’s puzzling,” he said. “It doesn’t allow people in the community to support their school district or push the administration and the school board to turn things around before it gets worse.”

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Access counselor: hidden action is ‘particular damaging’

Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke Britt came down pretty hard on the State Board of Education for its recent end-run around the Indiana Open Door Law. But he concluded it didn’t violate the law.

Britt also suggested the legislature may want to close a loophole that let the education board take action on a controversial issue – Indiana’s A-to-F letter grades for schools — without public discussion of what it was doing.

“I encourage all public agencies to be especially attentive to the purpose of public access laws to avoid ambiguous situations and arousing suspicions of prohibited activities,” he wrote. “Regardless of intent, the appearance of action taken which is hidden from public view is particularly damaging to the integrity of a public agency and contrary to the purposes of transparency and open access.”

The dispute concerns an Oct. 16 letter from 10 of the 11 board members to legislative leaders, asking them to direct the Legislative Services Agency to calculate school grades, a task normally handled by Indiana Department of Education staff. Elected Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, who chairs the state board, wasn’t consulted and didn’t sign the letter.

Ritz sued, arguing the signing of the letter constituted an illegal secret meeting. But a judge ruled Ritz’s lawsuit was invalid because only the attorney general can sue on behalf of a state official. Tony Lux, Ed Eiler, Cathy Fuentes-Rohwer and Julie Hollingsworth took up the torch and filed a complaint with the public access counselor, an appointed state official charged with making sure public-access laws are followed. Continue reading

Open Door Law: “Any person” can sue … or not?

A judge may decide by Friday whether Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz can proceed with her Open Door Law complaint against the State Board of Education. Attorney General Greg Zoeller says she can’t — that only he can sue on her behalf. According to news coverage, the AG may have case law on his side.

But what does the Open Door Law say? “An action may be filed by any person in any court of competent jurisdiction  … ” And, “The plaintiff need not allege or prove special damage different from that suffered by the public at large.”

Presumably Ritz is a person. You wouldn’t think she would give up her right of access to the courts by being elected to public office. Of course, my record on decoding what state law really means isn’t very good. Lacking a law degree, I tend to think the law means what it says, when obviously that’s not always the case.

Article 1, Section 6 of the Indiana Constitution, for example, says, “No money shall be drawn from the treasury, for the benefit of any religious or theological institution.” That would seem nullify Indiana’s voucher program, Continue reading

Ritz makes statement with lawsuit

Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz was no doubt sending a message that she doesn’t intend to be pushed around when she sued the State Board of Education this week for violating the state’s Open Door Law. She may not win in court. But whether she gains anything by suing is another question.

The lawsuit also calls attention to an issue with the Open Door Law, which says the public’s business should be conducted in meetings that are open to the public. It’s a good law. But if governing bodies are determined to act in secret, they can find ways to do it.

At issue is the State Board of Education’s Oct. 16 letter to Indiana House and Senate leaders asking them to direct the Legislative Services Agency to calculate A-to-F grades for Indiana schools, something normally done by staff at Ritz’s Department of Education.

Ten of the 11 board members signed the letter. Ritz, who chairs the board, said she wasn’t told of the letter until it was delivered. She sued on Tuesday, alleging the other board members conducted an illegal secret meeting to draft and sign the letter.

Tension between Ritz and board members has been growing for months, and the letter and lawsuit take it to a new level. And the Department of Education news release announcing the suit suggests Ritz sees the board’s efforts to undercut her authority as being encouraged by Gov. Mike Pence, who appoints the board members. Continue reading

Open Door Law update: MCCSC sí, state legislation no

Let’s give credit to the Monroe County Community School Corp. board for doing the right thing and complying with the Indiana Open Door Law, no matter how reluctantly.

At a public meeting at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday (Jan. 4), the school board will consider a proposal from the corporation’s principals and directors of elementary and secondary education to serve as interim MCCSC leaders while the board searches for a new superintendent. Then the board will meet again at 5 p.m. Thursday to appoint an interim superintendent.

The board has been through this movie before. The problem is, it apparently discussed and decided to reject the team leadership proposal in a closed-door executive session, on Dec. 7. It then voted Dec. 14 to appoint Tim Hyland interim superintendent.

Bloomington resident Eric Knox questioned whether the Dec. 7 executive session was appropriate in a complaint with the Indiana Public Access Counselor. When the counselor said the Open Door Law didn’t allow for such a discussion to take place in secret, Knox threatened legal action.

The school board, in a statement explaining the do-over, claims it “followed proper procedures” and blames the necessity for this week’s meetings on “a private citizen,” i.e., Knox. But as the Bloomington Herald-Times editorialized, “It’s time to shine a light on the discussion, the disagreements, the persuasions, the consensus being built. It’s time to operate in the open.”

While we’re on the subject of the Open Door Law, here’s a really bad idea that has been proposed for the 2011 session of the state legislature: State Sen. Ron Alting, R-Lafayette, has introduced legislation that would water down the law to let school boards discuss proposals for school consolidation in executive sessions.

There’s probably no topic that has a more disruptive impact on students and parents – and hence, is more controversial – than school consolidation. That’s all the more reason that consolidation should be discussed in public, not behind closed doors.

The legislation has been assigned to the Senate Committee on Local Government. Let’s hope Sen. Connie Lawson, D-Danville, the smart and sensible senator who chairs the committee, will decide there are better issues to spend time on this session.

More Open Door Law problems for MCCSC board

Did the Monroe County Community School Corp. board violate with the Indiana Open Door Law by discussing a leadership team proposal in a Dec. 7 executive session?

Both the state public access counselor and the school board’s own attorney, writing in response to a complaint from Support Our Schools organizer Eric Knox, seem to have said that such a discussion is not allowed. Yet the board apparently not only discussed the proposal but decided to reject it and to come up with an alternative in the closed-door meeting.

And that’s why the board will be having yet another executive session on Tuesday, its sixth in the past month – this one to discuss strategy with respect to a threatened lawsuit over violation of the Open Door Law.

To recap, the proposal made in November by the MCCSC’s instructional leadership team called for having the 25-member team, made up of school principals and the directors of elementary and secondary education, serve as interim leader while the board seeks a replacement for Superintendent J.T. Coopman, who is retiring.

After getting feedback from the school board, the instructional leadership team revised its proposal, suggesting that a three-person executive serve as interim leader with support from the other 22 team members.

The school board never discussed the revised proposal in public. But board president Jeannine Butler told the team on Dec. 14 that the board declined the offer. Instead, it appointed retired school administrator Tim Hyland to serve as MCCSC interim superintendent, a position he previously held in 2008-09. Butler said the board would establish a committee of four principals to advise him.

Questioned about the decision, Butler said she believed the board had decided to reject the leadership team proposal during the executive session on Dec. 7. Continue reading

Executive session is to train new school board members

The Dec. 6 executive session of the Monroe County Community School Corp. board is to provide training for board members-elect Martha Street and Kelly Smith, according to member Sue Wanzer.

That’s a legitimate reason for a closed meeting under the Indiana Open Door Law, which allows executive sessions “to train school board members with an outside consultant about the performance of the role of the members as public officials.”

Wanzer said the board will meet with a trainer from the Indiana School Boards Association, who will help get Street and Smith up to speed on what’s involved in serving on a school board. They were elected to the board in November and take office in January. Keith Klein joined the board a year ago and arguably also qualifies as a new member due for training.

School Matters questioned the closed meeting last week in light of concern about secrecy in the early stages of a search for a new MCCSC superintendent.

There’s no question that it’s legal for the board to have an executive session for the training of new members. Whether the entire board needs to be present for such training is another matter. Also, there’s nothing that says the meeting has to be closed – and one could argue that the community would also benefit from hearing the ISBA’s take on the proper role of board members.