Board’s meeting purpose revised

Published 9:03 am Wednesday, December 1, 2010

FRANKLIN—The city school board this week changed the topic of a closed-door meeting scheduled for Thursday after The Tidewater News questioned its legality.

In an e-mail notice to board members and reporters Monday, officials said the purpose of the meeting, scheduled for 6 p.m. at City Hall, was “to discuss and consider the performance of specific employees, and to evaluate the performance of the school division.”

The Tidewater News questioned whether the latter was an appropriate topic for a closed session and contacted the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. The nonprofit alliance in Williamsburg promotes expanded access to government records, meetings and other proceedings at the state and local level.

“That doesn’t sound like something that can be discussed behind closed doors,” said Megan Rhyne, executive director for Virginia Coalition for Open Government.

There are more than 30 instances in which a school board is permitted by Virginia code to discuss matters in private, Rhyne said. The primary reasons include the sale of property, legal matters, contract negotiations and personnel.

Rhyne referred The Tidewater News to The Freedom of Information Advisory Council in Richmond, where staff attorney Alan Gernhardt agreed with her.

A section in the Virginia Code allows the discussion of a school’s performance if it is a public institution of higher education. Gernhardt interpreted that to be for public colleges, not school districts.

The Tidewater News contacted City Attorney Taylor Williams, who spoke with Gernhardt. Officials a few hours later issued a revised meeting notice that dropped the performance of the school division as a discussion topic.

“We had a good discussion,” Williams said. “I’m changing the meeting notice. There will just be the discussion of the employees.”

He said he and Gernhardt agreed that there is no definition in the code for a “public institution of higher education.”

“So there is a problem with the code, in what is the definition of a public institution of higher education,” Taylor said.