Coalition Urges Support for Opening Charter Schools Board Meetings – Council Contacts Needed Before Tuesday Vote
Fritz Mulhauser | July 27, 2020 | Last modified: July 28, 2020
UPDATE: At the Tuesday (28) session, the D.C. Council passed the amendment discussed below by a vote of 9-4. The Coalition is grateful to all those who contacted Council members in favor of improved transparency.
The Open Government Coalition wrote today (27) to Council members asking them to vote in favor of the kind of open meetings of charter boards that all other public bodies must hold. Text follows. Now we need your help.
The Public Charter School Board is covered by the D.C. Open Meetings Act. However, most decisions about school life are made by charter schools’ 66 individual boards that are exempt from the law and so may close meetings at will.
The Coalition favors a specific amendment authored by Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) that would strengthen language already in the pending Budget Support Act offered by Education Committee chairman David Grosso (I-At large). The Grosso proposal has loopholes and exceptions that would offer little more transparency than at present.
The D.C. Office of Open Government Director, Niquelle Allen, wrote the Council today also (27) warning that although the aim of the legislation is welcome, the current draft still allows closed meetings of boards.
The Coalition letter reproduced below explains further.
July 27, 2020
Hon. Phil Mendelson, Chairman
Council of the District of Columbia
Re: Bill 23-760 — Fiscal Year 2021 Budget Support Act of 2020
Dear Chairman Mendelson:
We write on behalf of the D.C. Open Government Coalition to support amendments Councilmember Charles Allen introduced today to greatly increase transparency of public charter schools, which educate nearly half of D.C. students, and account for nearly $1 billion of the city’s education spending. Public oversight of charter schools is no less important than public oversight of schools the city runs, and these amendments would bring D.C. residents’ ability to monitor charter schools much closer to parity.
We are very pleased that the Budget Support Act (BSA), as passed on first reading, includes strong provisions to improve financial transparency of public charter schools. But it is not enough to ensure that D.C. residents can see how public charter schools spend millions of taxpayer dollars. The operational decisions made by public charter school boards of trustees about curriculum, staffing, pandemic preparedness, and other matters, are very important to parents of children attending those schools, parents seeking the best educational opportunities for their children, charter school teachers, and D.C. residents generally.
But the bill’s OMA amendments would allow a charter board to exclude the public, including parents and teachers, from discussion of all “information related to the operation of a public charter school,” except the annual budget, whether to open or close a school or campus, or to expand the school’s program. It would exclude the public from any board meeting attended by an employee of a chartering authority, such as the Public Charter School Board, even if that individual is present merely as an observer.
Councilmember Allen’s amendments will close the “discussion of operations” loophole, which largely exempts public charter school trustees from meaningful public oversight. They would allow a meeting with a chartering authority to be closed only to discuss subjects covered by other exemptions, such as information made non-public by statute, personnel, and disciplinary matters. In addition, it brings the District a step closer to the level of transparency in many other jurisdictions, where state and local open records and open meetings laws apply equally to public charter school boards and all other public bodies. There is still a lot of work to be done to bring the District’s 123 public charter schools into full compliance with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), but Councilmember Allen’s proposed amendment is a good first step, and we urge you to vote for it.
We would welcome the opportunity to discuss this matter with you in more detail, but we understand the final vote is tomorrow. If you need additional information, please call me.
Robert S. Becker, Esq.
Thomas M. Susman
If you agree, please add your voice by sending a note today to your own and other Council members. Addresses of members and their staff are also below.
The Budget Support Act is on the agenda for final passage Tuesday, July 28. The Council’s initial emergency legislation in March allowed further sessions including votes to be done virtually (online) with members participating by remote video. The public may view the session at https://bit.ly/2ooL0l1, beginning at 10:00 a.m.
Please act now.