When is a public school meeting open to the public and when is it not? That’s the question we’ve been asking since Doug Smith, Los Altos School District Board of Trustees president, found himself unwelcome at two recent Bullis Charter School parent meetings he wanted to attend.
According to Bullis Charter School board member Joe Hurd, the law does not define which non-agendized meetings should be public, but it’s safe to say that parent/teacher conferences are not open to the general public while school board meetings are.
Meetings in between, outside the Brown Act (the state’s open meeting law), are subject to interpretation. In the Los Altos School District, meetings involving budgets and long-range planning – impacting and including large groups of people – are open to all.
At the charter school, however, meetings on topics such as providing updates to parents on facilities issues or defining the culture of the school are closed to the public. That’s fine for a private school, but Bullis Charter School claims that it’s a public one.
If you’re going to be public, such meetings – especially when the entire school is invited and 70 parents attend – should be public. Period. And you don’t hold important meetings involving 70 parents and 20 staff members at a private location, which Bullis Charter School did.
Even if you’re within the letter of the law, the spirit is all wrong. Public schools are supposed to be inclusive. If there’s a doubt about the legality of an open meeting, err on the side of transparency.
With all due respect, the reasons Bullis leaders use to justify closed meetings don’t hold much water. One: Smith’s presence would have a “chilling effect” on charter school parents, who would be afraid to speak their minds – a negative scenario not actually tested. Two: Smith is trying to force the issue because he’s a troublemaker. We disagree. Three: The charter school and the district are embroiled in litigation. We understand their concerns over legal strategies, but that shouldn’t excuse inaccessibility. Four: The district hasn’t been as open as it should be, either. Even if true, two wrongs don’t make a right.
We like what Bullis Charter School is doing with its educational offerings. But it expects the worst from open meetings. There’s an assumption that some secret will be revealed. The charter school should operate from a position of having nothing to hide and everything to celebrate. This goes deeper than Doug Smith. Either this attitude – or the school’s “public” status – must change. Maybe then local public funds can be spent on education and not on lawyers.