NEWS- Minutes bored: School leaders skip the details
The Albemarle County School Board has a string of dubious distinctions for allegedly withholding information: a Freedom of Information Complaint in early 2003, a "Muzzle Award" in 2004.
Now comes a move to shorten the minutes of meetings. No names, no mention of the various arguments– and the move has at-large member Brian Wheeler blasting the change as "a blow to the public's right to open government and transparency in our decision-making process."
Au contraire, says School Board Chair Sue Friedman, who argues that publishing the summarized minutes within two weeks allows the board to be far more responsive to the public than the much lengthier minutes, which can take six months to have typed up.
The time it takes to get minutes published is a long-standing issue, says Friedman, one that has never met the board's requirement that minutes be approved within two weeks of a meeting. When she and three other board members attended a Virginia School Board Association meeting about Robert's Rules of Order, they learned that the bible of meetings calls for a summary of actions, not a summary of what is said.
Wheeler disputes that interpretation, calling the new format, on his SchoolMatters blog, "Robert's Rules run amok." He demonstrates how the new minutes differ from the old. For example, at the September 14 meeting, the board spent 35 minutes discussing the controversial topic of flier distribution. "That would be boiled down to a sentence: 'The board discussed fliers,'" says Wheeler.
Wheeler, who discovered the switch when preparing for the September 28 School Board meeting, is not convinced the new format will save resources. "It also takes work to summarize," he says.
"We're not providing a transcript of the meeting," says Friedman, "but we do have a podcast or, if we're asked, a CD."
"I was an outspoken supporter of podcasts," says Wheeler, "but not to replace minutes."
At the October 12 meeting, the board approved a compromise: the minutes will include discussion of an issue– but not identify who said what.
"The end result is not in the public's best interest," says an out-voted Wheeler, noting that an information-seeking citizen can't keyword or Google a topic, leaving only the time-consuming option of listening to a multi-hour meeting.
Friedman maintains that's a better option than citizens going to the School Board website and not finding current minutes. But others, including a Daily Progress editorial, wonder why the clerk isn't given the help needed to produce the minutes.
"It's hard to get those minutes done, but that's the cost of open government," says former board member Gary Grant. "I'd rather see tax dollars spent on that than lunches or dinners for the School Board. You're supposed to err on the side of providing more information, not less."
While on the board, Grant's "Constituents Report" often irked fellow board members, particularly when he published the names of teachers whose contracts were not renewed. The Virginia Coalition for Open Government noted in its July 2002 newsletter that some members of the Albemarle School Board seemed overly interested in "stopping leaks."
The Board earned its Muzzle award from the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression "for refusing to acknowledge a mistake" when a sixth-grader was forced to remove his NRA t-shirt, resulting in a $150,000 lawsuit against the county. (The matter drew further criticism when terms of the settlement were sealed, so citizens never learned how much the County's mistake cost the county or its insurance company.)
Friedman says those past incidents did not spur the new policy. As for info-hoarding perceptions, she says, "I think we realize that is opposite of our intent."
Joining Wheeler in opposing the plan was John Stokes. Board member Steve Koleszar abstained.
"We didn't necessarily need verbatim minutes," says Barbara Mouly, who joined Friedman, Diantha McKeel, and Pamela Moynihan in voting for the compromise. "I wanted something thorough enough so the public could tell the issue, the range of viewpoints, and the direction to staff."
Grant says that the provision allowing the clerk to put in details of discussions as long as the speaker isn't identified is "even worse" than a summary. And as for the board members who voted for the change, "They should be ashamed of themselves for taking away this facility for the public they're supposed to represent," he scolds.
"This fits into our commitment to be transparent and open to the community," Friedman repeats.
Brian Wheeler voted against the new policy.
FILE PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO