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Parent says Baltimore County school board violated open meetings law by removing video from school site

A Baltimore County parent has filed a complaint with the state’s Open Meetings Compliance Board after the county school board removed video of its Oct. 13 virtual meeting from BCPS website because of “inappropriate audio” that played during the meeting.

A school system spokesman said an edited version of the meeting, one that cuts out the “inappropriate audio” will be uploaded to the school board’s archives, but could not say when.

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An edited version of the meeting video is available on school system’s YouTube and Vimeo pages.

Dayana Bergman, a Halethorpe resident with three children in Baltimore County Public Schools, said the removal of the meeting video from the BCPS site denies the public access an official government record of the Oct. 13 meeting.

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She also said the school system violated the state’s sunshine law when it did not give “reasonable advance notice of the removal of the open-session minutes and closing statements" from the meeting.

School officials removed the video of the meeting from the school system’s website to edit out audio that sounded like a moaning woman during the late-night board meeting, and so the Maryland Office of the Inspector General for Education could investigate the cause of the interruption at the request of Kathleen Causey and Julie Henn, respective chair and vice-chair of the school board, in consultation with Superintendent Darryl L. Williams.

Maryland’s Inspector General for Education Richard Henry said the investigation was concluded last week, and the school board was briefed on the findings Friday and Saturday, he said.

He declined to comment on the investigation, but said the school board had agreed last week to release that information. A school system spokesman Tuesday afternoon referred questions to Causey, but she could not be reached for comment.

The Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board investigates complaints about potential violations by public bodies. The board functions under the Office of the Attorney General Brian Frosh.

In a statement, the school board legal counsel advised board members to delete the “inappropriate” portion of the meeting from the publicly available recording. Williams and school system staff were directed to preserve the original recorded version for further inspection as part of any investigation.

Bergman also said the school board removed the minutes and closing statements from the BoardDocs website on Oct. 14, and that she was “denied access to inspect the open-session minutes and closing statements” when she requested to do so in an email to Causey. The minutes and closing statements were re-uploaded to BoardDocs on Oct. 15.

The state’s open meetings law requires any public body to post meeting minutes and online recordings of meetings “to the extent practicable."

Removing the entire meeting and its minutes for an investigation is unreasonable, Bergman said.

“After all, these activities are what a majority of the public does with open-session minutes and closing statements: we the public review them, we the public inspect them and we the public investigate them,” she wrote.

The edited video was expected to be back on the BCPS site last week, Henn said.

In addition, Bergman said “public participation has been severely restricted” during school board meetings “due to the lack of efforts on the part of the current board," since the meetings first moved to a virtual setting early on in the pandemic.

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The school system, she said, has failed to provide reasonable notice of meetings and adequate accessibility options and appropriate methods of participation for families of English learners and families with vision and hearing disabilities.

Bergman said the board members are sometimes inaudible and fail to identify themselves when they speak, an issue of particular concern when a speaker does not have their full name displayed on the video chat.

“It’s very difficult to know who is talking and who said what during their meetings,” she said.

A BCPS spokesman wouldn’t comment on Bergman’s complaints and referred questions about her concerns over the openness of school board meetings to Causey, who did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday afternoon.

Complaints against other governing bodies have been submitted as online public meetings have become the norm amid the pandemic.

In Talbot County, the compliance board sided with the county council after multiple complainants alleged the council didn’t give the public an adequate chance to speak during the public comment period; that the methods used by the council to allow the public to watch the meeting remotely “did not work well enough” and was not available to all county residents; and that the council did not post its meeting minutes in a timely fashion after a session was interrupted by technical difficulties.

In guidance published in mid-March, the Attorney General’s office advises the members of public bodies to “identify themselves and speak audibly so as to assure that the meeting is, in fact, ‘open’ to the public."

A public body found by the compliance board to have violated the law must acknowledge the violation at its next public meeting.

Baltimore Sun reporter Lillian Reed contributed to this article.

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