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School board trip to L.A. left public out of loop

By Judith Scherr Daily Planet staff
Thursday May 31, 2001

The School Board wanted to do things right.  

So its five members, its student representative and six community people, including union leaders, a school administrator, the PTA president and a Peralta Community College Board member, took a trip to Los Angeles County to interview those who had worked with Michele Lawrence, the top candidate for the superintendent post. The board announced Lawrence’s appointment on Tuesday. 

In the process, the board left the public out of the loop. 

And probably violated the Brown Act, the state’s open meeting law – though First Amendment Coalition Executive Director Kent Pollack said he thought any court would say the violations were of a minor, technical nature. 

Thirty-seven year Berkeley resident Peter Sussman, former chair of the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and former head of the chapter’s Freedom of Information Subcommittee, argued that the technical nature of the infraction was less important than the board’s violation of the spirit of the Brown Act.  

When the public is ignored, “it can lead to lack of trust and even cynicism,” Sussman said. Signaling out a group of Berkeley High parents who have stepped forward to create a new program for their failing children, Sussman said this is a particularly critical time for the school board to extend an invitation to participate to the broad school community.  

“The biggest problem in our schools is the lack of buy in and the lack of participation,” said Sussman, whose children went through Berkeley’s public schools. By the time the public has a chance to comment on the superintendent’s appointment, “it’s a fete accompli,” he said. 

The violation 

The Brown Act says it is OK for an elected body to schedule a visit to a place outside its district for personnel reasons. So there was no problem with the board decision to go to Paramount, in Los Angeles County, to check out the new superintendent’s references first hand.  

The Brown Act requires the agenda to be properly noticed to newspapers and the public.  

Generally, Board of Education agendas are posted in the school administration building and sent to individuals, groups and newspapers who have requested notice of meetings. 

Interim superintendent secretary, Queen Graham said agendas for the trip, described as a closed session meeting, were simply posted, but not mailed, due to time constraints. 

Ralph Stern, the district’s legal counsel told the Daily Planet that a Brown Act violation could be claimed only if there was no agenda mailed to those for whom a written request was on file. 

Catch 22. 

The school district does not keep a record of those who have requested agendas in writing. Original requests are thrown away when they are placed on a master list, Graham said. So, for example, one could not prove conclusively that a particular newspaper had made a written request for an agenda. 

In addition to a problem with meeting notification, there was no provision for public comment before the executive session, as required by the Brown Act. The agenda that was posted at the building and faxed on request Wednesday to the Daily Planet says that “The meeting will be called to order by the presiding officer at 7 a.m. and immediately recess to closed session.” 

It would have been impossible for the board to allow public comment, even if the agenda had allowed for one, as the body was on an airplane headed to L.A. at 7 a.m. 

And the place of the “closed session” meeting was vague. After the roll call, the board members were to “Recess to closed session – Board Conference Room.” The address of the closed session was not given because, according to Stern, the group broke up and talked to people in a number of locations. The only location given on the agenda was Los Angeles County and not Paramount, in L.A. County, where the meetings took place. 

The district tries 

School Director Ted Schultz said the district tries to follow open meeting requirements. “We’re very conscious of the Brown Act,” he said. At the same time, he said, it is constricting. Hiring a superintendent needs to be done quietly, because, if the person who was being investigated were not selected after all, the public knowledge could affect the candidate’s status in her district. “We tried to be as open as possible and to protect the confidentiality of the applicant,” he said. 

School Director Joaquin Rivera said there was no attempt at secrecy. Had anyone asked, the questioner would have been told about the trip, he said. Still, he said, “at that point, the intent was, we did not want people to know who that person (the top candidate) was.” 

Both School Director Shirley Issel and Interim Superintendent Steve Goldstone said they thought the agendas had been mailed out. (Had they been put in the U.S. mail, they would probably have reached their destinations, after the day-long excursion.) “I don’t think there was any conscious effort not to inform you,” he said. 

Berkeley Federation of Teachers President Barry Fike, who went on the trip, however, had another view. “I was told no one was supposed to know about the trip,” he said, adding that he was unaware until he got on the plane that the full board would be going. 

Like the other board members, School Board Director John Selawsky said he was not aware that notices had not been sent to the press and public. “I think all meetings should be noticed consistently,” he said. 

Asked whether he thought it would have hurt negotiations with the future superintendent, had a Daily Planet reporter known about the trip and gone along, Selawsky said, to the contrary: “It would have been good for the community.”