School board produces transparent agenda

From The Valdosta Daily Times: 

The Lowndes County Board of Education has created a meeting agenda that not only seems to comply with the Georgia Open Meetings Act, but that could become a standard for school boards across the state.  The agenda provides details that will be a great public service.

The school system’s attorney Warren Turner worked with the board and office staff to produce a document that is far more transparent than what Lowndes schools have previously published and that may well be one of the most transparent school system agendas in Georgia.

Historically the BOE’s meeting agendas had been lacking in detail and in an Aug. 19 editorial Valdosta Daily Times Editor Jim Zachary, who is the director of the Transparency Project of Georgia wrote, “The Georgia Office of the Attorney General has made it clear personnel items being considered by local government must be clearly identified on the meeting agenda.

“The Lowndes County Board of Education’s meeting agenda simply identified personnel items to be discussed in executive session as ‘List 1, List 2, List 3 and Transfers.”

Zachary encouraged the board to be more transparent, and called the agendas that had been consistently published by the Lowndes Board of Education “insufficient.”

Zachary said at the time, the public should be able to read an agenda and know what is going to be considered at any particular meeting before making a decision whether to attend.

The board responded positively.

In fact, for the next board work session the agenda identified the specific items under consideration during executive session to include:

1. Personnel Consideration: i. Certified PreK-5th – 2; ii. Certified 6th-12th – 2; iii. Classified; 1. Transportation – 12; 2. Maintenance – 1; 3. Paraprofessionals – 1; 4. Clerical – 2; 5. Nurses – 2; iv. Substitutes: 1. Substitute Teachers – 9: 2. Substitute Nutrition – 1; 3. Substitute Custodial – 4; 4. Substitute Clerical – 1; 5. Substitute Transportation – 4; v. Retirements – 1 (Classified); vi. Resignations – 5, 4 Certified, 1 Classified)

Residents with an interest in what the board would be discussing in its closed-door session and then ostensibly voted on in the public meeting could know in advance and make an informed decision about attending the meeting.  The full agenda is posted on the school system’s website.

Zachary said the same level of transparency should be followed for pending litigation and real-estate transactions to be discussed behind closed doors.

The Georgia Open Meetings Act allows elected bodies to discuss litigation or pending litigation in closed meetings because of the need to deliberate legal strategy in a lawsuit.  If a lawsuit has been filed, it is already public record. If a letter of intent to file a lawsuit has been received by a local government, the letter is a public record. Therefore, it would not be divulging any private information or legal strategy on an agenda that, at the very least, lists the parties in the litigation, e.g. “Executive Session – Legal Matters: Joe Doe v. BOE.”

A similar level of transparency should be applied to real estate transactions. The state allows real estate deals to be talked about behind closed doors because negotiations may be delicate or fragile and discussions about price or contract conditions could compromise competitive bids, for example.  That does not mean, however, the public does not have a right to know that elected officials are using taxpayer money to buy land or that the local government is selling off property. Agendas could list property under consideration or at the very least could include: “Real Estate Matters: Consideration of three one-acre lots for future construction of maintenance building,” for example. That kind of detail would allow the public to know what is being considered without disclosing any proprietary information or details of a fragile deal.

All the business government does, is the people’s business.

Zachary encouraged all county, city and school officials to follow suit and believe this could be a template that would help to create greater government transparency throughout Georgia.

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