Friday, August 14, 2015

Transparency and Closed School Board Meetings

Transparency is a critical issue for our schools and School Board – the public and parents must have access to the information they need to make informed decisions to help their community and participate in the education of their kids.  Folks are concerned about transparency despite ongoing efforts of the schools to communicate with the public – the perception exists that not enough information is shared early enough, and in a way that can be understood.  This perception results from many things, for example, most people were surprised both when the Mr. Daniel construction project ran into opposition, and then when the Fairfax County Planning Commission decision was deferred until after the start of the school year this fall.

Another case: on February 24, 64 families wrote the School Administration and Board regarding concerns about the use of technology, including Internet safety.  After some technology meetings, the School Board then on June 16 held a closed session identified on the agenda as “Technology” – a session that lasted about an hour and 45 minutes.  The closed session concerned cybersecurity, which the law allows to be closed in certain cases to protect the security of school systems, but that the meeting was held shortly after the parents’ letter, for such a long period, and with little being shared about it, fed a perception of secrecy.  Perhaps some of that discussion could have been open to the public.

I remember a few years ago, when one of our kids was being recognized with other students by the City Council for art projects.  The Council held a closed session first, and while a bunch of tired kids and parents sat waiting, with the kids falling asleep in the Council Chambers, one kid said something like “It’s Falls Church, how much can there be to discuss in private?”

Closed meetings are only a tiny part of the question of transparency, with access to usable information the most important point.  But as a practical matter, it is already difficult to keep up with the things that are happening in the schools and before the Board – and holding frequent closed meetings makes that more difficult.   For people who do want to attend meetings, having a closed session at the start can be a problem because the current practice is not to identify in advance how long a closed session will be, and so you don’t know when to arrive.  Frequent closed sessions of indeterminate length also further a perception of secrecy, even if that is inaccurate.

In the last few months, I have spent a fair amount of time sitting in the hall outside a closed School Board meeting.  Because I am very concerned about transparency and making sure the public and parents can participate in school governance, I decided to take a look at how School Board practices regarding closed meetings have changed over time.   Bottom line – the number of closed meetings has spiked this year, although there is an explanation (see below).  To address the recent increase in the amount of closed meetings, and the perception that creates, I suggest that the School Board (1) hold closed meetings only when it is required or strictly necessary – meetings should not be closed simply because it is possible to close the meeting, (2) provide as full an explanation as possible of the reason for closing a meeting, and (3) identify in advance how long the closed session will be and stick to that.

I looked at School Board meetings going back to the start of 2010, and whether a particular School Board meeting, joint meeting, or hearing identified by the Board’s website had a “closed session” – that is, whether any part of the meeting was closed to the public – and the reason the Board stated for closing the session.  Of course, it would be better to look at the total time in closed session, because having a five-minute closed discussion is different from a two-hour closed discussion, but I don’t think I have access to that data. 

The data shows, first, that the most common reason meetings are closed is to deal with personnel issues.  Meetings can be closed for more than one reason, but in the significant majority of cases, one of the reasons or the only reason was to discuss confidential personnel issues.  The other most common reasons were discussion of student matters, real property (that is, school land and buildings), and legal matters.  A few other issues such as the protection of privacy, security, public contracts, and proposals also were identified.   Sometimes the description of the reason for closing is pretty good, and other times sparse, although the School Board has become better at this – there were two meetings back in 2011 where the stated reason for closing the meeting was to discuss “Personnel under Section 2.2-3711 (A)(1), in particular:” with nothing more.  Some explanation of the reason for closing is now generally included in the motion to close the meeting.

Second, until this year, the School Board had been holding fewer meetings that were closed or closed in part than in the past.  In 2010 and 2011, the Board had a closed session about 80% of the time (84% in 2010 and 78% in 2011), with the number of closed meetings driven by the number of personnel discussions, which took place in about 70% of meetings (68% in 2010 and 72% in 2011) (again, topics other than personnel were also discussed in some of those meetings – if anyone is interested I can provide that data).  The board reduced the number of meetings in which personnel issues were discussed in 2012, and again in 2013, so that the number of meetings closed in part due to personnel issues fell from 70% to about 50%.  That significantly reduced the amount of meetings that were closed for any reason, also to about 50% (52% in 2012, 48% in 2013, and 44% in 2014), because during those years there were very few meetings where personnel wasn’t one of the reasons the meeting was closed – the number of closed meetings where personnel wasn’t discussed fell from 4 to 2 to 1 between 2012 and 2014.

This year, 2015, there was a huge jump in the number of meetings closed for at least part of the time – the percentage has risen all the way back to 80% from 50%.  However, this wasn’t because of discussion of personnel issues, which has stayed at roughly the same percentage as from 2012-14.  But this year 8 meetings out of 25 have been closed without any discussion of personnel issues – more than the prior three years combined, and it is only August.  The rise in the number of closed meetings was instead caused primarily by two things – the unsolicited PPEA proposal and the request for proposals (RFP) under the PPEA to develop the George Mason property.  These reasons appear to the main or only reason 7 the meetings were closed.  The remaining and eighth meeting was focused on cybersecurity (that’s the meeting I mentioned at the start).  [Note: the PPEA is the law that allows for solicitation of innovative proposals for schools, and the acceptance of unsolicited proposals.]

What do we take from this?  Most of the jump took place because the discussion of “PPEA” issues, and the law requires confidentiality for perhaps much of that discussion.   Regardless, my subjective impression, and that of others, is that more may be discussed in closed session that is necessary.   I have no doubt about the ethics of any school board member, who are all exemplary public servants who sacrifice a lot for our community.   But I suspect that there are some times when a subject that can be discussed in closed session can also be discussed in open session, and the public would benefit.  The past few years have included the discussion of some sensitive subjects, without a rise in the percentage of closed meetings.  One example from this year is the technology/cybersecurity meeting on June 16: we may not want the public to hear a specific discussion of vulnerabilities in our school networks, but general reporting of the types and numbers of incidents that have happened would be very useful to the public and parents.  In cases like this, setting aside a specific and limited amount of time for a presentation and questions, with any further discussion taking place in open session, would be a good approach.

In short: don’t close meetings because it is possible, but only because it is required.  When meetings are closed, provide as full an explanation as possible of the reason for closing the meeting, and identify in advance how long the closed session will be.

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