Monday, February 8, 2016

School Board Halfway to Government Transparency

If everything goes as planned, The Mercury today will publish a story about the Pottstown School District's attempts to get the community more involved in the decisions that affect us most.

It is an effort to be lauded and encouraged.

There is now an on-line (and paper) survey asking for input on what we all think are important characteristics in a new schools superintendent, a decision to be made in the coming months.

But the district is asking for other input as well.

In a move that seemed to come out of left field, the district also announced last week that it is setting aside time in upcoming Monday board meetings specifically to seek input from staff, students, parents, residents, taxpayers and the odd farm animal on ways the district can save money and avoid waste.

This too is to be lauded and encouraged.

But ....

As I have argued before, HOW you do something is as important as WHAT you do.

If your WHAT is ending world hunger, it sounds good until you say the HOW of accomplishing this is to kill off half the world's population.

HOW matters.

And HOW the district went about inviting residents to come to meetings to share their ideas for saving money is itself a demonstration of how novel this whole government transparency thing is to Pottstown schools.

I attend every school board meeting. (Luckily, I get paid to do that, so the pain of the enterprise is somewhat muted.)

To the best of my recollection, there was never any vote to begin this public cost-saving initiative nor, worse yet, any public discussion of it. It just kind of happened.

That's a no-no.

What is supposed to happen in an open and transparent government is things get discussed publicly and voted on publicly so the public knows what its elected officials -- in this case the group of people in charge of the largest share of your property tax bill -- is doing.

Right now, those considerations still get treated as an after-thought and an annoyance among Pottstown school officials.

("Oh there's that freakin' reporter again, going on about secret meetings. Why can't he give us credit for trying to do something right?)

He's trying.

But when I asked the long-suffering Community Relations Director John Armato HOW this decision to start actively pursuing public input on the budget came about, he got back to me and, with a knowing sigh, said he was told that "it came up in the July board workshop, and was again discussed in the January workshop."

See, this is a problem.

These "workshop" meetings are closed to the public. (I think you see where I'm going with this.)

Sometimes called "retreats," they are supposed to be meetings at which information is presented to board members but, so as not to violate Pennsylvania's admittedly feeble Open Meetings law, "deliberation" is not supposed to occur.

But if things are being "discussed" and "decisions" are being made, that's pretty much the definition of "deliberation."

I asked Paula Knudson, Director of Government Affairs/Legislative Counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association if  this was the Open Meetings Law violation I thought it was.

She replied "you can call it a 'workshop,' you can call it 'a garden party' or you can call it 'Bob's Secret Santa,' if you want.' If a quorum of the school board is getting together and discussing public business and, as it sounds like happened here, and making a decision about a policy change, it has to happen in public session."

And she agreed with me that it was "sad and ironic," that the school board held a meeting that was likely illegally closed to the public in order to foster being more open with the public at its meetings.

And sure, you might argue, "no harm, no foul;" that the board is moving in the right direction, and I'd agree.

But consider that for many of us, there is a little voice inside our heads saying "So sure, we know about this and it seems like a good thing. But what ELSE did they deliberate or decide that we don't know about?"

Why undo the impression that you're trying to be more open by deciding to be more open in secret? Fulminating reporters aside, doesn't that defeat your purpose?

After all, to give credit where credit is due, after being criticized for holding a closed door executive session to hear a proposal from the Montgomery County Intermediate Unit on conducting the district's superintendent search, the board did a do-over and held it again, but in public at the last meeting.

And more incredibly at the last meeting, board members Tom Hylton and Amy Francis said they want to invite the public into "negotiation sessions as we talked about a few months ago" (something which the scold in me feels compelled to point out this sounds like an improper policy discussion in an executive session...)

But still, if that means publicly open negotiations with the teachers union, that would be revolutionary given that discussing labor negotiations is one of the four reasons the board is actually ALLOWED to exclude the public.

So consider all this a helpful reminder in a teachable moment, rather than my usual vitriolic foot-stamping about talking the talk but not walking the walk.

After all, Sunshine Week -- in which open government is celebrated -- is just a month away (March 13 through March 19), so why not study up now?

There are only four topics of discussion from which the public can be legally excluded: labor negotiations, real estate purchases or leases, personnel discussions of a specific individual (very important that last part), or identifiable legal issues, particularly one that has actually been filed in a court.

Otherwise, it has to be in public.

Its not as if you have hordes of people busting down the doors to come to your board meetings folks.

Best rule of thumb is not to call them "workshops," or "retreats" or "information sessions" or even "Bob's Secret Santa" and best not to exclude the public.

I mean the board most often holds these 'workshop' meetings on a Saturday morning anyway. If no one comes to your regular meetings, why are you worried who will show up on a Saturday?

Hold them Saturday morning, don't close them to the public and if the public shows up? So what?

Maybe you'd get some of that input you're looking for.

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