The Carroll County Board of Education was found to have violated the state’s open meetings law for a second time this school year when it held a closed meeting Jan. 12 without providing adequate public notice.
The State of Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board issued its ruling June 6. It found that the Carroll school board restricted public access to the meeting, violating several provisions of the Open Meetings Act “by failing to make sufficiently detailed disclosures to the public before and after these closed-door discussions.”
The ruling stemmed from a complaint filed April 4 by Jennifer Weiner, a parent from Westminster with two children in county public schools. Weiner also filed a successful open meetings complaint in October 2021 after the school board held a closed meeting in August that year on a proposed statewide school mask mandate.
“I’m really disappointed that after the first violation, they’re still not complying with the law,” Weiner said this week.
In the complaint filed April 4, Weiner noted that the school board announced the Jan. 12 meeting as an open meeting via email on Dec. 23, 2021, with no mention of a closed session. She also noted that the school board failed to prepare a statement after the Jan. 12 closed session about what matters were discussed in the closed meeting.
In its ruling on the closed meeting Jan. 12, the state compliance board wrote that “if a public body meets in closed session, the minutes for its next open session shall include: a statement of the time, place, and purpose of the closed session; a record of the vote of each member as to closing the session; a citation of the authority … for closing the session; and a listing of the topics of discussion, persons present, and each action taken during the session.”
The topic of the school board’s closed-door meeting Jan. 12 was a silent protest known as a “shoe drop” that happened Jan. 11 in response to pandemic mask mandates in county public schools. According to the state compliance board’s statement, a person filled the lawn in front of the school system’s office building in Westminster with hundreds of pairs of children’s shoes and signs with messages such as “Unmask Our Children” and “These shoes represent the students in Carroll and Frederick Counties who oppose state mandates and will walk away from future restrictions.”
Kathryn “Kit” Hart, chair of Moms for Liberty, and Bryan Thompson, chair of Concerned Parents for Carroll County, claimed responsibility for the shoe drop via a Facebook post in January, according to Weiner. In her letter to the state compliance board, Weiner stated that during the school board’s closed meeting Jan. 12, members decided not to press charges against Hart for the incident. The compliance board’s statement confirms the board’s activities during that meeting.
On Jan. 14, the school system’s supervisor of security sent a letter to Hart stating the school board‘s decision not to press charges, according to the state compliance board. The letter was posted on social media, Weiner said, but not shared publicly by the school board.
“I saw that somebody had posted the security’s letter on social media on the school board’s decision and I thought … well, when did they decide that? … and I felt like this should have been something that was announced in a public meeting or at least addressed somewhere,” Weiner said.
Weiner said she investigated the closed meeting further and noticed discrepancies in the school board’s minutes, statements and agendas.
“It just didn’t seem right to me, so I went back to read the Open Meetings Act, and I realized that they had violated the law again,” she said.
The compliance board agreed with Weiner’s assessment and stated that public bodies should “disclose as much information as they can without compromising the confidentiality of matters discussed within the claimed exception.”
Wendy Novak of Eldersburg, a parent who co-filed the first Open Meetings Act complaint with Weiner last fall, said she is concerned about what goes on during the board’s closed meetings without public notice.
“The lack of transparency is just getting more and more concerning,” Novak said.
Edmund O’Meally, legal counsel to the Board of Education, addressed the second Open Meetings Act violation during a school board meeting June 8. He characterized both the complaint and compliance board ruling as petty.
“The act was violated by returning to closed session without conducting a public vote to go back to closed session,” O’Meally said. “Is that perhaps a little more picayune than in prior years? One might argue, but one might take a view that, no, we’re following the letter of the law. But that’s for the compliance board to determine.”
School board members Donna Sivigny and Patricia Dorsey said that they did not agree that the board had violated the Open Meetings Act on Jan. 12.
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O’Meally advised the school board to obtain training from the Maryland Association of Boards of Education to learn the nuances of the act.