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During COVID mask debate, Carroll board of education violated open meetings act, state compliance board says

A state compliance board found Carroll County’s Board of Education in violation for a closed meeting it held in August without providing adequate public notice.

The topic of that meeting, according to the compliance board, was a proposed statewide school mask mandate.

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After receiving and investigating a complaint from two Carroll County parents, the Open Meetings Compliance Board delivered an opinion stating that Carroll’s school board failed to provide reasonable advance notice of the meeting, did not allow the public an opportunity to object to the closure of the meeting, and exceeded the scope of discussions allowed in closed sessions.

On Aug. 26, CCPS issued a news release around 10 a.m. via email to media outlets, including the Carroll County Times, stating that the board would meet in closed session at 6 p.m. to “consult with legal counsel.” The notice was released the same day Maryland’s State Board of Education was scheduled to hold a special meeting, at 3 p.m., to discuss statewide masking requirements.

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“From the submissions, it appears that the emailed press release was the only notice the Board provided,” the compliance board opinion states.

The two parents, Wendy Novak and Jennifer Weiner, filed complaints with the state about the meeting notice.

Novak said she became aware of the closed meeting when it was published by news media, but not from the school district’s website or social media as was typical with other meeting notices.

“If they’re having secret meetings … what else are they doing in private?” said Novak, of Eldersburg.

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Weiner, a Westminster parent, said county school meeting notices are usually sent in an email or posted on social media.

“If they’re discussing the mask mandate, we need to be able to observe that,” she said.

When the state school board voted to approve a universal mask mandate at its Aug. 26 meeting, Carroll County was the only school system in the region without a requirement that students and staff wear face coverings to slow the spread of COVID-19 in school buildings.

Before that day, Carroll’s board had stated publicly that it did not want the mask mandate, going against the advice of the county health officer.

After the state school board met on the afternoon of Aug. 26, Carroll’s board met in closed session that evening.

“The Complainants allege that the Carroll County School Board violated several provisions of the Act by meeting in closed session without providing the public reasonable advance notice of the meeting and by failing to follow the proper procedures for excluding the public,” the compliance board stated. “We agree.”

However, legal counsel for Carroll County’s board of education said it was not in violation, according to documents provided to the Times by the compliance board. The documents state that the school board provided proper notice of its closed session meeting, that it met in open session to vote on whether to enter closed session, and that it provided a written statement justifying the closed session.

“Based on the confidential meeting minutes from the Local Board’s session it is clear that no topic other than the one identified in its written closing statement was discussed,” Carroll’s legal counsel stated in the documents.

But the compliance board stated that the school board’s discussion did not stay within the legal bounds of what the Open Meetings Act allows in a closed session. The legal advice exemption does not “allow for closed discussion among members of the public body merely because an issue has legal ramifications,” the compliance board stated.

Carroll’s board members’ discussion veered into how the board would communicate its position on the state mask mandate, according to compliance board documents.

The Open Meetings Act states that a public body, or the board of education in this case, has to conduct its business in meetings open to the public except when discussing matters that fall within one of the 15 exceptions that allow for a closed meeting. One of the exceptions is when consulting with counsel to obtain legal advice.

Public boards must also vote to go to closed sessions in an open meeting, allow the public to object to the meeting being closed, and state in its notice that the meeting will be open before a vote to close.

But before this happens, the board of education has to provide reasonable advance notice “so interested individuals may exercise their right to attend,” the compliance board stated, even when the meeting is scheduled on short notice.

“[L]ast-minute meetings require the public body to make extra efforts to get the word out to the press, and ideally to the members of the public, who follow its activities,” the compliance board stated in its opinion.

The content of Carroll’s notice was “deficient,” according to the compliance board, because it only described the meeting as a closed session without stating it would first be an open session the public could attend.

The compliance board also stated that the notice did not state the location of the meeting nor was Carroll’s method of providing notice efficient enough given the circumstances.

“We commend the Board for providing notice to the press, but we reiterate that meetings called ‘on an urgent basis’ may require a public body ‘to take extra measures’ to provide notice,” the compliance board stated.

Weiner said she was “pleasantly surprised” to see the compliance board agreed with their complaints.

“We just want them to know that they are not above the law,” she said.

The Maryland Attorney General Office’s website states that if a compliance board found that a public body violated the Open Meetings Act, a member of that body must summarize the opinion at the next open meeting and majority of the members must sign a copy of the complaint to submit to the compliance board.

Carroll’s next board of education meeting is scheduled for Nov. 10.

Ed O’Meally, one of CCPS’s lawyers, said he has not yet met with the board to discuss the violation. And Marsha Herbert, president of Carroll’s board of education, did not return a request for comment.

Carey Gaddis, spokesperson for CCPS, said the system has already amended its process of notifying the public before the compliance board releasing its opinion Wednesday. She said when there is an emergency closed session, the system expands its notification system from its 23-media contact list to school employees and parents in addition to posting on the school website, Twitter and Facebook.

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The school system already notifies the public in this way for the board of education’s regularly scheduled meetings.

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