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Complaint accuses Howard County school board of violating open meetings law during redistricting vote

The parent of a Howard County public school student filed a formal complaint Friday that the Howard County Board of Education violated the Maryland Open Meetings Act during its controversial vote on school redistricting Nov. 21.

After one of the 55 motions made during the board’s meeting failed by a 3-4 margin to move students in a certain neighborhood to a different school, school board members moved to enter into a closed discussion, and returned to vote again on the failed motion in open session. One board member reversed her vote to support the motion, and it passed.

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The parent, Barbara Krupiarz, wrote in her complaint to the Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board that school board members “had a large number of work sessions to deliberate on these matters.”

To “secretly discuss a failed vote after months of public meetings is clearly a violation of the Open Meetings Act and a significant deterioration of the public trust,” Krupiarz wrote.

The compliance board, a governor-appointed panel that functions under the Maryland Office of the Attorney General, issues opinions on potential violations to the state’s open meetings law, but has no authority to issue sanctions.

“Reconsidering a vote in private session, without a specific reference to an exception [in the state sunshine law] seems to be a clear violation,” said Chuck Tobin, co-chairman of Ballard Spahr’s Media and Entertainment Law Group, a national law firm that specializes in First Amendment litigation.

Community attendees at the Howard County school board meeting at which the board voted on redistricting.

Last week’s meeting Nov. 21 marked the end of a redistricting process in Howard County that will move more than 5,400 students to different schools in an effort to balance socioeconomic levels and address capacity issues in the school system.

Krupiarz’s complaint alleges the violation occurred after a motion to move certain neighborhoods from Clemens Crossing Elementary School in Columbia to Bryant Woods Elementary School nearly 3 miles away failed by a 4-3 margin, with Vice Chairwoman Kirsten Coombs casting the deciding vote.

Board member Jennifer Mallo then moved the board “go into recess to consider the impacts of the failure of that last motion."

When board members reconvened, a vote to re-propose the relocation passed; Coombs tearfully said the board must vote again “because otherwise the entire plan falls apart.”

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The subsequent motion to approve the neighborhood’s redistricting passed.

“To say that they are reconsidering the impact of one board member’s vote is an admission that what they were doing is exactly what the open meetings act forbids,” Tobin said. “I think the public got shut out of a very important discussion.”

Later in the meeting, schools Superintendent Michael Martirano asked to briefly adjourn to speak with board Chairwoman Mavis Ellis. When the meeting reopened to the public, Ellis said she might have “mistakenly said that the board met in administrative function” when members met during the recess that preceded Coombs’ reversed vote.

Ellis said the board “did not meet in administrative function” during the closed-door discussion.

Maryland’s sunshine law ensures public access to the proceedings of public bodies, with certain exceptions related to judicial functions and legal advice, property acquisition, personnel matters, investing public funds, and public security, among others.

Administrative functions are defined as actions administering state law or the regulations of a public body and are, in some cases, permitted to be discussed in closed session under the act. The formation of new policy is not permitted in closed-door discussions, according to guidelines from the state attorney general’s office.

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Legislative functions, defined as the process of taking action regarding public policy, are not permitted to be discussed privately among a majority of a public body.

State law also stipulates that a public body is required to cite an applicable exception to the open meetings law to justify closed-door discussions before entering such private meetings.

The compliance board forwards complaints to the accused agency, which has 30 days to respond to the board. The state attorney general’s office forwarded Krupiarz’s complaint Friday to Ellis with a request for a written response, email records show.

A spokesman for Howard County schools did not respond Friday to a request for comment.

The board issues opinions within 30 days of receiving the agency’s response. Agencies found by the board to be in violation of state open meetings law are required to publicly acknowledge the violation at their next public meeting.

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