Friday, December 16, 2011

Stillwater school district won't disclose all members of committee that shaped school calendar policy

For two months, a committee of Stillwater school district employees and others from the community discussed -- and then proposed -- a controversial calendar for next school year.

No public notice. No agendas. No meeting minutes.

Now, an attorney for the district says only one document with the names of the committee members exists and it's only "a partial list of members."

And a district parent wanting to inspect the committee's emails will have to pay a search fee because the request "would clearly cause excessive disruption of the District's essential functions," said Kent B. Rainey of Rosenstein, Fist & Ringold.

(A later posting on this blog will address why the Open Records Act prohibits a search fee from being charged to the parent.)

Rainey also told Mitsi Andrews that she would have to pay a $250 deposit before the district would begin compiling the emails for her inspection.

Andrews received two letters from Rainey on Wednesday evening, the day after the school board voted to keep the traditional school calendar for 2012-13. But a continuous learning academic calendar will be up for consideration again next year, the Stillwater NewsPress reported.

School Superintendent Ann Caine told the board she had proposed the expanded calendar idea to the district’s annual calendar committee.

District parents learned of the continuous learning calendar proposal in an email from the "SPS Calendar Committee" at 4:10 p.m. on Dec. 2. They were given four days to respond to an online survey about the proposal.

According to that email, the committee consists of a teacher, parent, support staff member and administrator from each school site.

"Additionally, representatives from Oklahoma State University, Meridian Technology Center, the City of Stillwater, and local childcare providers also participated and provided valuable input," the email said.

"As a result of the deliberations of the committee, a proposal is being put forth to move the district to a continuous learning calendar," the email said.

Andrews said that was the first she had heard of the committee and the proposed change for the next school year, so she telephoned and emailed Caine asking for a list of the Calendar Committee members, and agendas and minutes of its meetings.

In an email Dec. 7, Caine responded, "We do not have an agenda or minutes from our committee meetings."

Caine's administrative assistant had told Andrews the committee was not appointed by the school board.

If the committee wasn't appointed by the board, then it isn't subject to the state Open Meeting Act. But no agendas? No minutes? No notes of any kind? How did members know what they were considering from meeting to meeting?

As for the names of the committee members, Caine responded, "I do not feel comfortable releasing the names of the committee because I do not have permission from them to do so."

Andrews asked again but used a more formal request letter.

Rainey responded on behalf of the district. He said the committee has about 51 members, of which 36 are district employees.

The "partial list" of 43 members includes only district employees, parents and Board Member Debra Vincent.

Missing are the names of representatives from OSU, Meridian Technology Center, the city of Stillwater and local childcare providers.

How convenient given Caine's refusal to identify those members. And it's difficult to believe for the same reason.

Caine and other district officials know, of course, who the other members are. They know whom they invited to participate. Certainly, they know who accepted. Didn't the district have sign-in sheets for the meetings?

And how else could Caine reconvene the committee in January -- as she told the school board she would -- to begin drafting another proposal to go into effect in 2013.

But in Rainey's letter, he emphasized, "The District is not required to respond to questions or interrogatories, only to provide documents that are in existence."

In other words, don't bother asking because we aren't going to tell you.

But the public is entitled to know who helps shape public school policy.

The Oklahoma Open Meeting Act states, "It is the public policy of the State of Oklahoma to encourage and facilitate an informed citizenry's understanding of the governmental processes and governmental problems." (OKLA. STAT. tit. 25, § 302)

Oklahoma’s Open Records Act starts with the following statement of principle:
As the Oklahoma Constitution recognizes and guarantees, all political power is inherent in the people. Thus, it is the public policy of the State of Oklahoma that the people are vested with the inherent right to know and be fully informed about their government. (OKLA. STAT. tit. 51, § 24A.2)
The stated purpose of the Open Records Act is "to ensure and facilitate the public's right of access to and review of government records so they may efficiently and intelligently exercise their inherent political power."

These important principles apply even in Stillwater.

Joey Senat, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
OSU School of Media & Strategic Communications

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the commentators and do not necessarily represent the position of FOI Oklahoma Inc., its staff, or its board of directors. Differing interpretations of open government law and policy are welcome.

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