PERU – The state official who works to ensure the public has proper access to government meetings says school boards meeting behind closed doors to discuss changes to their COVID-19 protocols should be holding those meetings in public.
In the past week, two school boards in the region have held closed-door executive sessions to discuss possible changes to back-to-school guidelines as cases of the diseases caused by the novel coronavirus continue to rise in Miami County.
In both instances, the boards provided notice of the meetings citing, as required, one of the enumerated reasons within state code that allows for private meetings. Both provided the language in the code saying they were meeting to “discuss the assessment, design and implementation of school safety and security measures, plans and systems.”
Superintendents at both schools said they were advised by their attorneys to use that provision to call the sessions.
But Luke Britt, the Indiana Public Access Counselor, says he doesn’t believe that is the proper use.
“No, in my opinion it is not,” he told the Tribune on Monday, Aug. 30.
Instead, he said, it was designed to discuss things like responses to “more of a man-made hazard.” In such a meeting, boards could discuss things like lockdown procedures for instances when students’ safety is threatened.
Keeping discussion of that information out of a public meeting has the benefit of keeping it from people who “could exploit that for nefarious reasons,” Britt said.
Monday was not the first time Britt had been asked.
In an October memo, available through his office’s website, Britt said the question of school boards’ usage of executive sessions to develop back-to-school plans had been a “frequent inquiry.”
The memo notes the enumerated reasons, and applicable code, under which the boards may hold such a session and said that “active threats and responses should indeed be kept in-house to ensure those who intend to visit harm schoolchildren or staff are not privy to those plans.”
“Back-to-school plans during the COVID-19 pandemic may be a separate issue, however, and not exactly what the legislature intended,” he wrote. “While serious and not to be dismissed, COVID-19 is a passive threat insofar as public knowledge of public health plans will not give COVID a heads-up to target a child or a building. The virus, thankfully, does not have eyes and ears. The harm comes from the virus itself and not from knowledge of mitigation efforts.”
“It is difficult to imagine a scenario wherein those plans – or safety considerations generally – would be compromised if discussions were held during a public meeting.”
However, he pointed out in the memo, “the statute is clear and unambiguous in that it includes school safety plans without qualification.”
“To the extent school boards choose to hold executive sessions under these auspices, the wording of the law would likely support that decision,” he wrote. “The intent and purpose of the law, however, is another matter altogether. Therefore it is the official position of this office that back-to-school pandemic plan discussions should be held in public.”
When asked if boards were holding executive sessions in order to deliberate in a more peaceful environment before presenting a proposal to the public, Britt said that shouldn’t matter.
Any board, he said, has the authority to remove people from a public business meeting who are causing a disruption, and calling a private meeting to avoid having to do that in anticipation of a discussion becoming heated is not the proper use of an executive session.
“The board has control over its meeting,” he said.