If a meeting happens and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?
Updated: Jan 6, 2019
If you knew that the school district had a dozen work groups meeting regularly to discuss specific issues and advise school district leadership, you were ahead of me. I thought it was more like three or four, but I was underestimating.
I asked about these groups last week in an email to our school board and superintendent, and it turned out to be good timing, because a review of the communications plan for these groups was on the agenda. Board members received a full rundown of the groups, which include workgroups on Diversity, School Nutrition, Student Wellness, and School Safety. The list the board received includes notes on how often each group meets and when they last met.
Here's the problem: some board members weren't even sure how many of these work groups existed, how often they were meeting, and who was included. At a linkage with teachers meeting immediately before the board meeting, a longtime and beloved high school teacher said he had no idea a workgroup had been meeting regularly to discuss student mental health, and would have loved to have been part of it.
How is it possible that so many people are in the dark about these important meetings that feed into public policy? In part because of the district's governance model, which regular readers of this blog know is in my view the source of a lot of what ails our district. Once there were regular committees -- much like what our village government has in place now. When the board adopted its coherent governance model, it eliminated committees.
Under CG, operations are left to the administration, with board directives -- both policy and results expectation -- as guardrails. The rationale for eliminating committees, I was told at one point, is that each board members should be engaged in policy across all topics. I see how philosophically, that sounds like a good principle. In practice, however, committees (or, say... workgroups) have a way of reestablishing themselves, because they're useful. Sometimes smaller groups need to dig into an issue and recommend action or policy to a larger group. It works well, as much as it can sometimes be tedious, or have other downsides, like when committee members have no term limits, or members are selected for social or political reasons rather than their expertise or interest.
A traditional standing committee model definitely has drawbacks, but it also has some great advantages: First and foremost, generally people passionate and knowledgeable about a certain topic will be among those who volunteer their time on a committee dealing with that topic. That way the governing entity has access to a much greater level of expertise than it would just based on either its staff or elected officials.
Second, the rules are pretty clear about standing committee meetings -- they have to be publicly posted, and agendas and minutes must be made public. Anyone interested in what that committee is talking about can show up and ask questions or just observe. In some cases, committee meetings are even videotaped so that the public can watch a meeting they were not able to attend but are interested in viewing. This structure offers a way for the public to find out more about a given issue without taking it to the full board. Say I was a parent interested in making sure my kid had vegetarian options for lunch every day in the cafeteria. It wouldn't really be efficient for me to go to every school board meeting and bring it up -- if there were a standing school nutrition committee, I could bring it to them, find out about current meatless options, district policy and ask that the group consider asking the school meal vendor to expand its vegetarian options. Way more efficient.
Standing committees also tend to have pretty straightforward rules about becoming a member -- they tend to be formally structured, either a nomination or appointment process, and the group's voting membership may be structured so that one subgroup wouldn't be able to dominate the group, and no stakeholder group can hijack the committee's work.
All of those advantages are lost when we have what the Shorewood School District has adopted, which is a laundry list of workgroups that are ostensibly created and led by administrators, but are blessed and working to create recommendations for the board that feed back into its governing policies. These workgroups are doing public work, and in many cases include handpicked members of the public or volunteers who responded to a call for any willing community members. The recommendations they bring to the board or the administrative decisions they make end up changing the way our students learn and how they spend their days -- what they eat for lunch, what happens if they break the rules, and the type of professional development their teachers have. But in most cases, it's quite clear, the district is not posting public notice for these work group meetings, nor has it been making agendas, minutes or reports publicly available. Nor does everyone who is willing to volunteer their time and/or expertise have an equal chance to serve on these workgroups -- even the ones that include community members.
Here's where I show you my email thread with the Superintendent asking about the workgroups:
Emily Berry >to:Bryan Davis <firstname.lastname@example.org>, schoolboard <email@example.com> date:Thu, May 17, 2018 at 10:05 PM
subject: Work groups
Hello Dr. Davis and board members,
I'm writing to request a list of the active work groups meeting under the auspices of the school district, and a sense of their meeting cadence, along with how work group members were selected.
I'm asking because I believe some or all of these work groups are meeting without any public notice, and without an opportunity for interested members of the public to be part of these groups, to observe their meetings or see their work product.
If you believe these work groups are exempt from open meetings laws, I'm hoping you can offer an rationale as to why, and/or some legal reference. My layperson's reading of the state laws would indicate that these groups's activities are public business and should be noticed accordingly. I don't think you would intentionally violate these rules, so I'm looking for an explanation -- or evidence that they are being noticed, and I have missed the postings somehow.
I believe this is might be at least a partial list of the current school district work groups:
Code of Conduct
I hope you would agree that the public has a right to know who is on these work groups, what is being discussed, how often they are meeting and the public has a right to see the group's work product/recommendations and minutes from meetings. I also believe some community members with valuable expertise would like an opportunity to serve on these groups, but most are not aware that they exist.
I appreciate anything you can share. I know May is incredibly busy -- if you need time to respond fully, I of course understand. If there's anything you can show me in writing, I expect to be at the next board meeting, so before or after that meeting might be a time to follow up.
Thanks in advance for your time and response.
Bryan Davis <firstname.lastname@example.org>
to: Emily Berry cc: schoolboard <email@example.com> date:
Fri, May 18, 2018 at 8:52 AM
subject: Re: Work groups
Which state law or laws are you referring to? Please be specific with statute references.
A list of the work groups will be presented to the Board next Tuesday along with a structured plan for communicating their work to the Board and the public. Work Groups are led by administrators and don't involve a quorum of the Board. The people selected to participate in the work group are people that the lead administrator feels can contribute to the work group. This doesn't mean that anyone who feels they can contribute is able to participate. It is important that the workgroup leader has a handle on who participates in order to gain a wide variety of perspectives and expertise along with keeping the work moving forward.
Thanks for the quick reply. I'm referencing Wisconsin State Statute, Wis. Stat. § 19.82(1) and (2). I'm attaching a guide to compliance. I'll call out page three, which gives an example of a covered body as a "committee appointed by the superintendent to consider library materials." This is pretty similar to the work groups. My understanding is that the rules apply regardless of whether a quorum of board members is present -- it applies quite broadly to any group working on public business.
A note -- in my email I actually attached an old version of the Attorney General's Guide to Compliance -- there's an updated one now for 2018. It includes the same example I mention, only on page 4. Here's a link.
I do think state Open Meetings Law applies to some of these workgroups, based on what's in this compliance guide.
Page 2 of the guide describes a case that seems pretty applicable:
Thus, for example, in State ex rel. Krueger v. Appleton Area School District Board of Education, the Wisconsin Supreme Court held that a curriculum committee, “created by” school board rule and given the delegated authority to review and select educational materials for the school board’s approval, was subject to open meetings laws.14
First, it was a “committee” under Wis. Stat. § 19.82(1), not an ad hoc gathering, because it was comprised of a defined membership of individuals selected pursuant to the procedures set forth in the school board’s policy handbook, and its members were empowered to vote on how the school board should exercise its collective authority as a body.15
Second, it was “created by . . . rule” under Wis. Stat. § 19.82(1), because the school board handbook policy was authorized by school board rule, thereby authorizing and enabling the 9 Wis. Stat. § 19.82(1). 10 Wis. Stat. § 19.82(1). 11 See State v. Swanson, 92 Wis. 2d 310, 317, 284 N.W.2d 655 (1979). 12 78 Op. Att’y Gen. 67, 68–69 (1989). 13 See 78 Op. Att’y Gen. 67. 14 State ex rel. Krueger v. Appleton Area Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ., 2017 WI 70, ¶¶ 27–34, 376 Wis. 2d 239, 898 N.W.2d 35. 15 Id. ¶¶ 28-31. - 3 - committee to be created. The school board rule also prescribed the procedures for school district employees to follow in reviewing educational materials and presenting them to the school board for approval. Read together, the school board rule and the board-approved handbook policy therefore authorized committees like the one at issue to be created, and also authorized such committees to exercise the school board’s delegated authority over curriculum review for the school district.16
In so holding, the Wisconsin Supreme Court explained that it did not matter that two individual district employees decided to put the rule and handbook policy in motion to form the committee. It also did not matter that neither the school board rule nor the handbook policy had provisions that created or mentioned the committee by name. Nor did it matter that the committee deviated from the handbook’s procedures in making its recommendations to the school board for a specific course’s curriculum. Rather, the dispositive factor was that the school board’s handbook policy authorized such review committees to be created for the purposes of reviewing curriculum materials and making recommendations to the school board for adoption.
I started to go down a law school rabbit hole, and then I realized that whether or not the district must post public meeting agendas, minutes and work from these workgroups, it should. They may not be legally bound to make workgroup membership available to everyone who feels they could contribute, but it sure would be nice if the district welcomed people willing to volunteer time and expertise rather than turning them away.
I should mention that the district's Chief Advancement Officer Ted Knight did present a plan to the board to create a section of the district's new website dedicated to these workgroups, and to ask administrators to regularly post updates about their work. This is a great start, but I think the district should make every effort to adhere to the spirit of state Open Meetings laws, and publicly notice these meetings with posted agendas and minutes. This might be more than is technically required in some cases, but I think we are a community that expects our elected officials to go above and beyond when it comes to transparency.
At Tuesday's meeting, I used my public comment time to ask the board to treat these workgroups as public meetings. This might be annoying to deal with. It would require an administrative assistant to post a lot of notices. Maybe no one will ever attend the meetings. Maybe a few opinionated cranks will attend and irritate district leadership. That's their right. Public business might move a little slower if it happens with an audience. It probably still won't work perfectly, but at least it will be visible and accessible. That doesn't seem like too much to ask. As messy and inefficient as it might seem at times, open government is good government.