Deputy Mayor for Education Jennifer Niles plans to open up meetings to the public for a task force that is being created to improve planning between the District’s traditional and charter schools, reversing an earlier decision to hold the meetings behind closed doors.
The task force, which will grapple with such contentious issues as how the city’s public schools can collaborate won the location and type of new schools that will open, was announced in August. According to the plan, task force meetings would occur monthly over the next two years and be closed to the public. Meeting minutes and materials would be published, and community meetings, focus groups and surveys would be scheduled to allow for public participation.
A “frequently asked questions” section on the deputy mayor’s Web site said the decision was made to establish “a safe and productive environment for task force members to have an open and honest dialogue with each other.”
But the Office of Open Government ruled in October that conducting meetings in private would be in violation of the D.C. Open Meetings Act.
Shayne Wells, a spokesman for the deputy mayor for education, said Tuesday that the office will comply with the ruling. “We were committed to an open and transparent process,” he said. “This will make it even more open and transparent.”
Fritz Mulhauser, who works with the D.C. Open Government Coalition and monitors public agencies, filed the complaint. “There’s a real epidemic around D.C. government of lack of awareness” about the city’s Open Meetings Act.
The law, passed in 2011, requires that public bodies announce their meetings in advance, publish agendas and provide public records of their meetings shortly afterward. It says meetings should be closed for only very specific reasons.
A compliance review of the Open Meetings Act by the coalition found that between September 2013 and July 2014, three of 24 public bodies reviewed posted no meeting information online; of those that did, 10 bodies never posted agendas or posted them irregularly.
In response to the complaint, Niles, through the mayor’s office of legal counsel, said that the law should not apply to the task force because it is “not a public body,” and therefore the meetings are “not subject to the laws concerning open meetings, and the public and press can be excluded from their proceedings.”
She said the task force is not taking “official action.” The goal of the task force, which will be chaired by Niles, is to develop a report for the mayor with recommendations on how to improve the coherence of public education in the District.
The process was modeled after the one used to develop new boundaries for the city’s traditional public schools. The boundaries and related recommendations were developed by an advisory committee, which conducted multiple community meetings in public but also held many meetings in private.
But Traci L. Hughes, director of the Office of Open Government, wrote in her opinion that a task force, while not specifically included in the definition of “public body” written into the law, still can be included in the law.
“The recommendations of the Task Force, whether accepted or rejected by Mayor Bowser, will most certainly be intended to impact District operations and inform policy,” she wrote.
Hughes said that because the task force would have a potentially “far-reaching impact on education policy, the only plausible determination is that it is an entity similar to a board or commission and is a public body as contemplated under the Open Meetings Act.”
As charter school enrollment has grown in the city, many residents have become concerned about the locations and the types of schools that are opening — and the sheer number of them — as well as the often-complicated experience of plotting a course from preschool to 12th grade through a continually changing array of schools.
The task force will have 23 to 25 members, including administrators from charter schools and traditional schools as well as representatives of District agencies, public school parents and community members.
Wells said the deputy mayor plans to announce members of the committee later this month. More than 100 people were nominated to participate.