In November 2016, the governor’s commissioner of administration issued an opinion allowing the St. Paul school board to meet privately to improve communication skills. Recently, the Minneapolis school board took advantage of the commissioner’s opinion to decide on the morning of a scheduled retreat to close the doors to the public. I served on the Minneapolis school board for two terms beginning in 2009; we closed schools and changed boundaries, negotiated contracts, argued about race and curriculum, and conducted a protracted superintendent search: all done in the public eye. Although I am disappointed in the St. Paul board for seeking this opinion and in the Minneapolis board for so wantonly taking advantage of it, my greatest concern is the opinion itself.
In response to the growing power and authority of government after World War II, all 50 states passed “sunshine laws” requiring government bodies to conduct business in public. Since the 1953 passage of the Minnesota open-meeting law, amendments and case rulings have carved out space for boards to conduct business in private when necessary, i.e., discussing questions of security, labor negotiation strategy, etc. The law does not penalize boards for chance gatherings at public events if the board does not conduct official business.
But now the commissioner of administration has further broadened the reasons for boards meeting in private. The 2016 opinion states that the St. Paul school board would not be in violation of the open-meeting laws if it met privately to “improve trust, relationships, communications, and collaborative problem solving among board members” as long as they do not discuss “official business.” The opinion also asserts that such meetings can be held privately with union officials.
How we do business is an integral part of doing “business” itself. How governing bodies govern is “official business.”
• Communications training, in which board members were schooled in how to conduct themselves with more clarity and respect, would, if held in public, foster good public relations as well as inform the public about the challenges faced by board members.
• Training on the delegation of duties in the district should also be subject to open-meeting laws. The substance of school board governing is how to strike a balance between the authority of the board vs. the superintendent. This balance is contentious — always has been and always will be.
• Meetings to air personal differences between board members should also be subject to the open-meeting laws. Personal differences among board members primarily stem from or are exacerbated by different political positions and experiences. Even though school board positions are nonpartisan by Minnesota law, political parties in St. Paul and Minneapolis endorse school board candidates, and the current toxicity of party politics carries over once candidates move from campaigning to governing. As voters in a representative democracy, we have a duty to know how our elected officials are comporting themselves and to determine whether they have the emotional, ethical and intellectual ability to hold their seats.
At one of the final retreats I attended as a board member, I shared a personal story about how public education had been important to me as a child and how my experience informed my current practice. Although I did not appreciate it when a reporter shared some details of my story in the newspaper the next day, I would never have argued for closing a meeting because of it. Unfortunately, one of my former colleagues did just that, referencing my experience to close the board retreat.
Ultimately, my story is no less personal than the countless stories parents bring forward at public testimony, pleading with the district to do better for their children. Being an elected official is being a public figure; the fact that people listen to what we say is both the power and the danger of holding the office.
My advice to those who are now serving and who plan to serve in the future? Get over it.
My advice to the citizens of Minnesota? Let your elected officials know that you are watching, listening and voting.
Carla Bates lives in Minneapolis.