The Baltimore County school board violated Maryland's Open Meetings Act when it decided to renew Superintendent Joe A. Hairston's contract while meeting secretly in May, the state's Open Meetings Compliance Board has ruled.
The school board failed to follow every obligation under the Open Meetings Act - from giving public notice to taking minutes to publishing a record of the session at its next meeting, the compliance board found.
Although the school board could meet privately to discuss the superintendent's contract, it must still follow the Open Meetings Act, the ruling said. "What the County Board cannot do is discuss development of a contract as if the Act did not apply," it said.
The eight-page ruling, dated Wednesday but released yesterday, caps a tumultuous period for a school system that faced angry accusations that it was insular and imperious in the aftermath of the news of the May 29 secret meeting.
Trying to repair the damage, James R. Sasiadek, the school board's new president, has promised openness and accessibility in meetings with community groups.
Yesterday, Sasiadek said he had instituted a number of steps to ensure the Open Meetings Act is followed - chief among them, telling Hairston, the board's lawyer and the school system's communications office to comply.
Sasiadek also said the board might receive a primer on the open-meetings law at its retreat next month.
"I'm just going to make sure the mistake is not repeated," he said.
Last week, the board posted on the school system's Web site a notice that it would go into closed session at 6:30 tonight to further discuss renewing Hairston's contract.
Michael T. Franklin, president of the PTA Council of Baltimore County, said the board would have to erase a long legacy of secrecy suggested by "the lack of debate at board meetings" and finally confirmed by the open-meetings decision.
"We've known they've done it for years, and this just proves it," he said.
Franklin said the secrecy engenders public mistrust at a time when community support for schools is needed. He called for the resignation of Margaret-Ann F. Howie, legal counsel to the superintendent, and Carol Saffran-Brinks, the school board's lawyer.
"The point of taxpayers paying for the legal counsels is not to teach them how to skirt the law but to teach them to be in compliance with the law," Franklin said.
The two lawyers did not return calls seeking comment.
Saffran-Brinks advised the board to break into two groups in January to avoid the Open Meetings Act's quorum requirement while discussing budget cuts. After that maneuver was revealed, board members vowed to be open and accessible in the future.
But meeting behind closed doors again May 29, the board agreed to renew Hairston's four-year contract, which expires June 30 next year, and give him a raise.
Donald L. Arnold, who was the board president at the time, first said that he had publicly given notice of the meeting.
Then Arnold argued that he didn't have to give notice because the meeting involved the superintendent's appointment, which isn't governed by the Open Meetings Act and its requirement of giving notice.
It was this argument that the school board made to the Open Meetings Compliance Board.
"We do not agree," the Open Meetings Compliance Board said in its opinion, finding that discussion of a contract is covered by the Open Meetings Act.
The compliance panel said the school board could have discussed the superintendent's contract in closed session but should have given notice of a closed session and followed other procedural requirements.