NEWARK – A state board has determined the Worcester County Board of Education violated the Maryland Open Meetings Act during several meetings last year.
On Feb. 7, the state’s Open Meetings Compliance Board (OMCB) issued an opinion outlining multiple violations made by the Worcester County Board of Education between May and November of 2017. The violations stemmed from the school board’s failure to provide the public certain information related to its closed session meetings.
Carrie Sterrs, coordinator of public relations and special programs for the school system, confirmed that the school board had received the opinion.
“The board is committed to operating with full transparency and it is grateful for the OMCB’s opinion, as it provided clarification on several practices related to the Open Meetings Act,” Sterrs said.
The OMCB, whose three members are appointed by the governor, is a state entity that issues advisory opinions in response to complaints about violations of the Maryland Open Meetings Act.
Last week the OMCB issued an opinion asserting that that the Worcester County Board of Education had violated the act in four ways. The OMCB opinion came as a result of a written complaint from Craig O’Donnell, a former Kent County News reporter and an advocate for government transparency, that alleged that the school board violated provisions of the act with regard to six closed session meetings it held between May and November of 2017.
O’Donnell said he’d made a habit of “spot-checking” the practices of boards of education throughout the state. He reviews the minutes of various board meetings.
“As time permits I am analyzing whether they are correctly proceeding when they claim to have topics for closed session and with notifying the public properly about meetings,” he said in an email. “The law is pretty straightforward about what to do and what not to do. It’s a slow process to review this stuff but I have to say I’ve found more violations than I expected.”
He doesn’t necessarily believe, however, that school boards are intentionally acting “slick or secretive.”
“It’s that the public should get the maximum amount of information about decisions as they’re made,” he said.
According to the OMCB, the first of the school board’s violations relates to the requirement that public bodies give advance notice of their meetings. While the board’s closed session meetings were listed on one section of the Worcester County Public Schools website, they were not listed on the site’s main calendar.
“The school board did not conceal its work sessions; a person interested in the school board’s meetings, as opposed to its meeting practices, might well have gone to the school board’s meeting documents and found the minutes and agendas in which the school board announced upcoming work sessions,” the opinion reads. Still, in our view, when a public body uses a calendar function for some meetings it must post them all there.”
The second of the school board’s violations relates to how its meetings are closed. According to the Open Meetings Act, a vote to close a meeting must take place during open session and a statement must be made regarding the upcoming closed session.
“Specifically, the school board did not disclose the topics to be discussed and did not disclose its reasons for excluding the public from the discussion,” the opinion reads. “Further, the lack of adequate notice for the work sessions meant that the school board’s votes to close were not truly public.”
The OMCB also determined that the summaries the school board provided to the public regarding closed sessions were not adequate, as they often simply stated that personnel matters were reviewed.
“Although it is sometimes hard for us to define, in hindsight, how much information the public body could have disclosed without compromising the confidentiality of the discussion, it appears to us that the school board used form language to describe its closed sessions without considering that question,” the opinion states.
The school board’s final violation of the Maryland Open Meetings Act relates to meetings closed to the public so that administrative functions could be performed. When meetings are closed for such a purpose, the board is required to identify the subject matter discussed in the minutes of its next public session. The OMCB found that did not occur.
O’Donnell, though not a local resident, maintains that it’s important for people to know if school boards are “taking transparency shortcuts.” “Education is a huge part of every county’s budget,” he said.
According to the Maryland Open Meetings Act, now that the OMCB has issued an opinion, at the school board’s next meeting one of its members shall announce the violation and summarize the opinion. The board has a meeting scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 20.