The St. Mary’s school board and superintendent discussed topics like the schools’ budget, maintenance affairs and the NAACP during various closed meetings over the last year, according to published minutes. However, those topics are not included as being exempt from public discussion in the St. Mary’s County Open Meetings Act.
The act states that public officials must conduct the entire process of public business in an open manner. But executive sessions, which are closed to the public, allow public boards to discuss topics like collective bargaining, disciplining students, exams, bidding processes, public safety, property purchases and personnel matters.
“The board needs time and space to answer questions,” Superintendent Scott Smith said about closed executive sessions. “Anything that’s presented — the information is made available.”
The school system posts minutes of every executive session in board agendas. From July 24, 2018, to Aug. 28, 2019, there were about 100 items listed under a section called “administrative function.”
State law allows an administrative officer, like the superintendent, to present information, but not deliberate on the matter, under that section. However, the St. Mary’s open meetings act, which Cathy Allen, the school board’s vice chair, referred to as more strict than the Maryland Open Meetings Act, does not refer to the function.
An opinion from then-attorney General Douglas F. Gansler in September 2010 states that briefings by a superintendent or his staff about matters under the superintendent’s authority, which do not involve policy matters or subjects that will require actions like voting, decision-making and sharing information, to be addressed by the boards, would be considered administrative function under the state act and still allowed under the St. Mary’s act to be done in a closed session.
However, “Many, if not most” topics should be discussed in public, according to the opinion, which was filed in response to how the St. Mary’s school board was conducting its closed sessions.
“It’s really the administrative workings of the school system, and we need the venue to discuss with the entire board,” school board Chair Karin Bailey said about the function.
Of the 100 or so items in the minutes, more than half have the word “discuss” in them. For instance, a line in the minutes from the May 22, 2019, agenda states “Dr. Smith and Dr. [Jeff] Walker [assistant superintendent of supporting services] discussed the contract bus driver walkout at” Benjamin Banneker Elementary School.
Bailey and Allen both said the word “discuss” is misleading.
“I think it’s just her vernacular,” Bailey said about Kathy Mancini, the board’s administrative assistant who writes the minutes.
“It isn’t really a discussion as it is the superintendent informing us of different things that could be sensitive … or to give us a heads-up that could be coming forward,” Allen said. She added the board can ask limited questions but the administrative function is a time for all the members to hear something at the same time.
Allen said they stay within the bounds of the open meetings act and they “worked hard to stay within the letter and the spirit of the law.”
Smith said he meets prior to advertised school board meetings with both Allen and Bailey to create the administrative function agenda.
Within a year, topics like the fire rescue program, a special police force for the school system, NAACP meetings, the Chesapeake Public Charter School and sexual abuse and sexual misconduct background checks have been “discussed” or “relayed” in the closed sessions, according to the minutes.
Smith said a special police force was something Del. Matt Morgan (R-St. Mary’s) wanted to bring into legislation and Smith was informing the board about it.
An item from the minutes posted in the Sept. 26, 2018, agenda states “Smith discussed a recent request from the NAACP to meet with the Board of Education to discuss staff diversity.” Smith said a lot of the items referring to the NAACP are to help the board understand what meetings with the group are coming up.
Although the school board is not supposed to discuss matters that will eventually be voted on, the contract of the charter school was referred to twice within this past year’s minutes, before the board voted on it during the Aug. 28 meeting.
It was mentioned once in the Aug. 29, 2018, executive session that states Smith “informed” the board the Chesapeake Charter School Alliance requested the school’s charter be renewed. And it appeared in the July 24 executive session, also prior to voting on the topic, to state “Smith and Mr. [Edmund] Law [the school system’s general counsel] discussed the anticipated timing of the Alliance’s Charter renewal request being presented to the Board.”
Smith said the discussions were about the charter school renewal timeline and process and the board never saw the contract during that time. The superintendent did add that the board could request representatives to come in to explain the timeline, but assured the “board was not involved in negotiations until it is presented to them.”
Also in the July 24 executive session minutes is a line stating Smith discussed a new sexual abuse and sexual misconduct background check requirements under House Bill 486. He said it went into effect July 1 and he was “helping [the school board] understand how challenging it was.” The superintendent said he might do a presentation on the bill in a school board meeting.
In the Sept. 12, 2018, executive session, a line in the minutes states, “Walker discussed the response to a gas leak that was recently discovered” at Greenview Knolls Elementary School. Smith said school officials suspected a leak, but an investigation determined it was a false alarm. “If there had been a leak, you would’ve heard about it,” he said. He added there was a communication update sent to other school officials but it was not mentioned publicly.
A few items in the minutes also mention the school budget.
The 2010 opinion from the former attorney general states that budget strategy must be discussed in open meetings since an official action will eventually occur.
“Sometimes those single sentences that came up would make it appear that great discussion is going on,” Allen said. “It truly is not.”
The vice chair added that Smith would report information about the budget, the board members might ask clarifying questions and Tammy McCourt, assistant superintendent of fiscal services, may make clarifications, but they do not dive into the specifics.
“Smith discussed plans for the possible use of excess funds in the Superintendent’s budget to help defer cost of SMCPS’ high school teams in the Solomons Dragon Boat Festival,” was a line written in the minutes of the Feb. 27 executive session as well as “Smith and Ms. McCourt discussed possibly offering a retirement incentive this year.”
Allen said by law a board member must be responsible for stopping any discussion during a closed meeting if it does not fall within the parameters of the act and she and Law, the school system’s lawyer, have been those monitors. Through her years on the board, Allen said she barely had to do that.
“It is a time for the superintendent to notify us, to inform us, but it not an in-depth conversation,” Allen said.