Wicomico County School Board Violated Open Meetings Act

SALISBURY – The state’s Open Meetings Compliance Board found the Wicomico County Board of Education violated certain provisions of the Open Meetings Act relating to meeting minutes and closed sessions.

The Wicomico County Board of Education this month acknowledged a Jan. 21 opinion issued by the Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board (OMCB) regarding the school board’s compliance with the Open Meetings Act during closed sessions held on Sept. 8, Sept. 29, Oct. 13 and Nov. 10.

“On Jan. 21, 2021, the Open Meeting Compliance Board, OMCB, issued an opinion regarding a complaint concerning the board’s compliance with the Open Meetings Act over the past several months,” said Gene Malone, board chair. “The OMCB found the board to be in compliance with the act in certain instances and not in compliance with the act in others.”

In October, Parsonsburg resident Stacy Shockley filed a complaint with the OMCB alleging the school board violated the Open Meetings Act over the course of several months when it went into closed sessions.

“For several months, the Wicomico County Board of Education has been conducting their board meetings by immediately going into closed session for 90 minutes and then opening the meetings to the public for about 30 minutes,” the complaint reads. “The Board immediately votes on predetermined items, which the public has no idea or understanding as to what was discussed or what’s being voted on. For this reason, the board agenda becomes meaningless while this practice is designed to keep the public in the dark for matters of public record.”

Shockley also alleged the school board did not open its meeting on Sept. 29 before voting to go into closed session.

“I can only speculate that they did this to avoid having to deal with concerned parents during this very difficult time,” the complaint reads.

The eight-page opinion – which reviewed the school board’s meeting practices – states the school board adhered to the Open Meetings Act when it went into closed session on Sept. 8, Oct. 13 and Nov. 10. However, the OMCB determined the school board violated the act when it failed to meet disclosure obligations for those same meetings

“When an open meeting is recessed for the public body to go into a closed session to perform an administrative function, §3-104 requires that it disclose in the minutes of its next meeting ‘a statement of the date, time, place, and persons present at the administrative function meeting,’ and ‘a phrase or sentence identifying the subject matter discussed at the administrative function meeting …,’” the opinion reads. “We find that the County Board violated the Act when it failed to comply fully with §3-104’s disclosure obligations following its sessions closed to perform an administrative function on September 8, 2020, October 13, 2020, and November 10, 2020.”

In its review of the Sept. 29 closed meeting, the OMCB opined the school board properly voted to go into closed session, but that conversations between Superintendent Dr. Donna Hanlin and board members strayed from the administrative function.

“The County Board’s response asserts that, during the closed session, Dr. Hanlin provided information about the possible resumption of in-person education and sports competitions and the various considerations she and her staff were weighing regarding the timing of these things,” the opinion reads. “The response also asserts that Dr. Hanlin is generally responsible for the administration of school activities and programming. The sealed minutes of the September 29, 2020, closed meeting generally support the County Board’s response. However, the minutes also suggest that Dr. Hanlin sought the County Board’s approval on certain matters. It thus appears that the closed discussion strayed from the application of ‘set standards to a set of facts.’”

The OMCB noted that while the superintendent’s Return to School Action Plan was presented at the following open session on Oct. 13, the public was entitled to witness the deliberation process. The OMCB added the school board also violated the Open Meetings Act when it did not disclose the subject of its Sept. 29 meeting prior to convening a closed session.

About The Author: Bethany Hooper

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Bethany Hooper has been with The Dispatch since 2016. She currently covers various general stories. Hooper graduated from Stephen Decatur High School in 2012 and the University of Maryland in 2016, where she completed double majors in journalism and economics.