The Baltimore County school board met in private session last month to discuss an external audit without informing the public of the meeting.
School boards around the state, including the county school board, routinely announce when they will be holding their meetings, often months in advance. When a school board wants to meet in a closed session, according to the Maryland attorney general’s guide to the Open Meetings Act, it must open in public and then announce the reasons it wants to close the meeting.
“Each closed session must be preceded by an open session for which the public body has given notice. In the open session, the presiding officer must conduct a recorded vote on a motion to close the session. The presiding officer must also prepare a written statement, or ‘closing statement,’ that cites the part of the Act that contains the applicable exception, lists the topics to be discussed in the closed session, and gives the public body’s reason for excluding the public,” according to the guide.
County School Board Chair Kathleen Causey defended the closing of the meeting, saying that the board is allowed to close for “administrative” reasons.
“We have also performed administrative functions related to the external audit and the superintendent search in meetings called only and specifically for those functions,” Causey said in an email.
She believes the Open Meeting Act does not apply when the board is meeting for an “administrative function.”
In an interview later, she added that the board was taking its direction on when to open and close meetings from its attorney, Andrew Nussbaum. “I do seek the advice and listen to the advice of board counsel,” she said.
Nussbaum did not respond to a request for comment.
The board met April 2, in executive session, to discuss the audit before its release on April 9 in a contentious, scheduled, open board meeting. Causey decided to keep the draft audit secret for more than a month while several board members asked questions of the auditor. The auditor said it would have been inappropriate for the draft to be released.
But the secrecy angered board members who were not given easy access to copies, as well as County Executive Johnny Olszewski, who asked for but was denied a copy of the draft audit before its release.
Anne Arundel, Carroll, Harford and Howard County school officials said it is their policy to give advance notice to the public of closed meetings, and to give a reason for closing the meeting during an open session. Baltimore City posts closed board meetings in advance on social media and on the board room door. In addition, the city school board posts a summary of the closed meeting online.
"We’re very concerned any time transparency is avoided, especially when it’s a school board that is responsible for the direction and operation of the public school system. These are the types of meetings that should be public,” said Joanne Antoine, a spokeswoman for Common Cause of Maryland.
Parents and concerned citizens should have been given advance notice, and any decisions made during the meeting should be disclosed, she said.
Causey said there is a difference between a closed meeting and a meeting for an administrative function that is not open to the public. Administrative functions are broadly defined in the statute as not creating new policy or not applying policy.
“When that happens we don’t need to announce the meeting,” she said.
She said the board is not attempting to hide anything from the public and that she will review the policy with the board’s attorney.