Last Modified: Tuesday, July 31, 2012 6:51 PM
Private phone meetings involving the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education may successfully skirt the state’s Open Meetings Law ... or not. It’s tough to say.
But such meetings on important board business that exclude the public do not bolster taxpayer confidence in how the board operates. Nor do they convince taxpayers that BESE members are necessarily on their side.
Some background: BESE members; the Department of Education; and John White, state superintendent; have at least on some occasions met over the phone to discuss agenda items before important meetings. Calls were arranged and monitored so that there was never a quorum, or majority, of the board meeting on the phone at the same time. Thus, the participants believe they do not violate the letter of the Open Meetings Law, which says that a quorum present constitutes a meeting and should be open to the public.
Southwest Louisiana’s BESE representative, Holly Boffy, contends that the phone meetings help her gather information about important issues, glean the department’s thinking, and give her time to research important matters herself by meeting with constituents before the official meeting. Besides, she says, the board’s attorney has said the meetings are legal.
Others are less certain. BESE members Carolyn Hill and Lottie Beebe find such meetings problematic; Hill told Gannett newspapers that the board was “deceiving the public” by skirting or possibly breaking the Open Meetings Law. Connie Bradford, a BESE member from northern Louisiana, told The News-Star in Monroe that the phone meetings might be an “issue” and that the board should “think about it.”
Critics suggest that BESE members discuss issues less thoroughly in public because they’ve already had the important discussion in private, thus depriving the taxpaying citizens and voters from following board members’ thought processes on the issues. Gannett newspapers reported that several former board members did not hold such private discussions under former Superintendent Paul Pastorek.
It is understandable that BESE members have a lot of important issues to ponder, and that they need plenty of background information on those important issues. Much of what is happening in Louisiana education is new, and it involves calculated risk. But it is new to the public, as well, and the taxpayers — Remember them? They foot the education bills — ought to hear the full and frank opinions and insights from the Education Department and its leadership.
BESE and the Education Department should take pride in much of what they achieved in expanding school choice and setting meaningful school standards. But if they are indeed proud, they should not be reluctant to share their thoughts and insights with the public they serve. Let’s all have a share in these “phone calls.”
This editorial was written by a member of the American Press Editorial Board. Its content reflects the collaborative opinion of the Board, whose members include Bobby Dower, Ken Stickney, Jim Beam, Dennis Spears, Crystal Stevenson and Donna Price.