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Casual disregard

SoVaNow.com / June 13, 2018
Seeing as how they’re in charge of spending $100 million-plus in taxpayer dollars on a new facility, you would think members of the Mecklenburg CountySchool Board would be maximally attuned to the need to be transparent and accountable in everything they do — actually a minimal standard for any public official to uphold, but never more so than when high stakes are involved. You’d think trustees would understand all this. Apparently not.

Sun reporter Susan Kyte attended last week’s meeting of the School Board — as she always does, so she can inform readers about what happened — and ran into unexpected difficulty doing her job. If this matter were all about Susan, this newspaper or the tender feelings of people getting crossways with one another, we’d let it slide by unremarked. But this is about your rights as a citizen of Mecklenburg County. Here’s Susan’s report:

***

For the third time in less than a year, the Mecklenburg County School Board last week excluded the public from what should have been a public meeting. Each time, the lock-outs have occurred during special called meetings of the School Board. Members of the public and press who’ve taken note of the designated meeting times at the Central Office complex have shown up only to find the doors locked. Since school trustees have key cards that allow them to access the building, the locked doors do not affect them. Unless the public — and that includes reporters — can catch the attention of someone already inside the building or someone with a key card, they are stranded outside.

The School Board does not make arrangements to have someone man the door.

The most recent episode took place last Tuesday, June 5. The notice of the called meeting, issued on June 4, stated, “The School Board will convene a special school board meeting for personnel, to review and vote on the 2019 budget, and to review updates to the new school complex on Tuesday, June 5, at the School Board office at 175 Mayfield Drive in Boydton. The closed session will begin at 6 p.m. with the open session starting immediately after. There will be no public comment at this meeting.”

While it is standard procedure to hold open meetings without setting aside time for citizen input, members of the public have the unquestioned right to attend.

Yet instead of sticking to the agenda and holding the closed portion of the meeting at 6 p.m., then coming out into open session after confidential items were discussed — this category includes personnel and legal matters, for example — trustees voted to change the order of the agenda so that the open (public) session would start at 6 p.m. Trustees in turn pushed the closed executive session to the end of the agenda. This reordering of the meeting schedule was done without prior notice, and the agenda change was not witnessed by members of the public, since they were stuck outside a locked room. This is a mockery of Virginia’s open meeting law that School Board members and other elected officials swear an oath to uphold.

I was one of the people who showed up at last Tuesday’s School Board meeting only to find that I (among others) couldn’t get in the building or into the board room to see what was going on. All the while as the trustees were meeting in “open” session.

Only when School Maintenance Director Brian Dalton arrived about 15 minutes into the meeting was anyone let inside the board room. Text messages with someone inside the room revealed the agenda change, a fact later confirmed by Board Chairman Brent Richey, who said the School Board started out in open session and decided not to go into closed session, even though the meeting room doors were closed to the public and the outer doors to the building were locked in expectation of the latter. No change was ever made to agenda posted outside the room.

At no time did either Richey or parliamentarian Gavin Honeycutt check to see if members of the public were outside waiting to attend the meeting. The reason given by Richey for changing the meeting schedule was to make it more convenient for the architects who traveled to Boydton to make a public presentation about the design of the new high school/middle school complex.

The architects were more than halfway into their presentation before the press or public was notified — by Brian Dalton — that the School Board was not actually in closed session.

Virginia public meetings law sets forth these requirements:

Ҥ 2.2-3707. Meetings to be public; notice of meetings; recordings; minutes.

A. All meetings of public bodies shall be open, except as provided in §§ 2.2-3707.01 [rules for meetings of the general assembly] and 2.2-3711 [purposes for which a meeting can be closed]….

C. Every public body shall give notice of the date, time, and location of its meetings by:

1. Posting such notice on its official public government website, if any;

2. Placing such notice in a prominent public location at which notices are regularly posted; and

3. Placing such notice at the office of the clerk of the public body or, in the case of a public body that has no clerk, at the office of the chief administrator.”

By changing the order of the meeting, the School Board effectively failed to give proper notice of the time of its meeting. As explained above, matters only went downhill from there.

Government Sunshine Laws exist for a reason, because the public has a right to know — except in certain limited circumstances — about the discussions and decisions of their publicly elected representatives.

For a group that prides itself on the extent of training they undergo as members of the local school board, the trustees’ cavalier attitude toward ensuring public access to meetings is particularly disturbing. Excusing their actions as unintentional makes no difference in terms of the public’s right to know.

***

Susan’s take here is exactly right: the trustees’ casual disregard of Virginia law and your right to know what actions Mecklenburg County government is taking in your name is bush league stuff. It’s worth noting here that serving as a School Board member might be the most thankless job in public service: few elected officials catch more flak than local school trustees, if only because public schools are such an integral and important part of the day-to-day lives of so many people. More often than not, school board members get more grief than they deserve, for actions and outcomes they don’t invite upon themselves. Yet there are other times when the criticism is wholly deserved, and the wounds entirely self-inflicted. Mark this as an example of just such a time.





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