Minneapolis school board members are expected to meet in two weeks to get new information on the racial makeup of schools and district boundaries, some of the most divisive issues facing the district.
But school officials want to do this without opening the meeting to the public. E-mails obtained by the Star Tribune show that district officials have gone out of their way to ensure that informational sessions like the one coming up do not trigger the state’s open meeting laws.
Board members and administrators say the private sessions are critical opportunities to ask questions and explore issues more freely than they can at a full, public board meeting. A school spokesman said board members do not discuss the information with each other at the sessions, insisting that no decisions are made and no votes are taken.
“These study sessions are a way to provide important and in-depth information to the board so that they can have informed public discussions,” said Dirk Tedmon, a district spokesman. “They are strictly for the purpose of providing information.”
The district schedules three separate meetings on the same topic and makes sure no meeting has five or more members, preventing a quorum that would require a public meeting.
Under Minnesota statute, any Minneapolis school board meeting attended by five or more people must be open to the public.
“This sounds like a purposeful attempt to get around the open meeting law,” said Don Gemberling, with the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information. “I haven’t heard of anyone going to this length to avoid an open meeting.”
Over the years, the board and district staff have met in these private study sessions to talk about issues that could eventually come to a board vote, such as the budget, student achievement and desegregating public schools.
E-mails in November of 2014 show board members and staff coordinating a meeting to dissect student academic progress data. A table was presented with board members’ names to tell staff their availability on each day. The board members were eventually told which meeting they were scheduled to attend, ensuring that no meeting warranted public notice.
A school district attorney said officials are not intentionally skirting the law.
Amy Moore, the district’s general counsel, said if five or more board members sign up for any of the three study sessions, the sessions should be canceled and moved to a public meeting. For the upcoming integration study session, Moore said she will cancel the meetings if five or more members sign up for any of them.
In that case, she said, “It needs to be either a public meeting, or they can do their own research.”
School board Member Rebecca Gagnon said the sessions are merely a chance for members to immerse themselves in information they need from staff. She said it is sometimes important for the board to see information before the public does so members have a better understanding of the issues and can respond to questions.
The study sessions are rare, sometimes held just once or twice a year, district officials said. But they often include some of the most divisive and complex issues facing students, parents and administrators.
Gemberling questioned why the district would want to appear as if it is not being transparent. The district’s response says “we don’t trust you, we don’t want you to know what’s going on,” he said. “It’s a very bad policy and a bad way of doing business.”
The school board already has a history of testy meetings. In recent months, public board meetings have been packed with protesters calling for the district to cancel a controversial reading curriculum. Earlier in October, a meeting was supposed to include a lengthy discussion on core programming at school, but was canceled after numerous disruptions by protesters. The group, known as Social Justice Education Movement, promises to disrupt the board’s regular meeting next week.
Lynnell Mickelsen, an education advocate who often attends Minneapolis school board meetings, said there are certain situations where the board should discuss matters in private, mainly personnel issues, like teacher discipline or firings.
“These are not closed secretive topics, these are basic public policy issues, and the more information we know, the better,” Mickelsen said.
Mickelsen understands if board members get frustrated when disruptions don’t allow them to focus on their agendas, or when attendees misconstrue statements or information at public meetings.
Still, Mickelsen said the closed study sessions are a concern “as someone who wants to see a more transparent district.”