School board conduct upheld

Panel finds no violation of Md. Open Meetings Act

PTA Council reserves comment

Action on O'Rourke pact had prompted complaints

Howard County

March 19, 2003|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Maryland's Open Meetings Compliance Board has exonerated the Howard County school board of charges that some of its recent meetings violated state sunshine laws.

In an opinion offered in response to complaints from the county's PTA Council, the Compliance Board determined that the Board of Education acted appropriately in discussing and enacting a controversial amendment to school Superintendent John R. O'Rourke's contract in November.

Some county residents, one board member and the 27,000 PTA members had raised a collective cry of foul play over the matter.

The opinion further stated that the school board often surpasses the minimum requirements of Maryland's Open Meetings Act, which county board members and school system staff say they hope will put to rest near-constant criticism about the public's level of access to meetings.

"We have always said that the Board of Education's practices were legal," school system attorney Mark Blom said in a prepared statement. "We trust this ruling by the Compliance Board resolves any outstanding questions citizens may have had."

The Compliance Board, charged with interpreting the state Open Meetings Act and resolving complaints about its alleged abuse, declined to rule on whether a set of minutes from a closed Howard school board meeting were accurate and on certain other subjects outside its jurisdiction.

"Comments in the [PTA's] complaint seemed to suggest that we evaluate what might be termed `best practices' rather than technical compliance with the Act," the opinion read.

"We [do not] see it as our role, in issuing an opinion, to conduct a broad-ranging and essentially standardless evaluation of whether procedures beyond those statutorily required might be appropriate to satisfy the underlying purposes of the Act," the board said in the opinion issued last week.

Members of the PTA Council had not yet seen the board's opinion yesterday, and wanted to reserve comment until it and its investigative committee have had a chance to review and discuss the outcome, said PTA Council President Deborah Wessner.

The PTA Council filed its complaint with the board in December, seeking the evaluation of about 20 instances of school board behavior largely having to do with adding a resolution to O'Rourke's contract that promised to rehire him when it expires in 2004, or pay him the equivalent of one year's salary - about $200,000.

The Compliance Board combined similar questions, and dropped some it could not answer, to come up with, among other things, the following determinations:

"The County Board's process for giving notice of open or closed meetings satisfies, and indeed exceeds, the statutory minimums of the Act."

"Announcements of matters that a public body will consider is not required."

"The County Board did not violate the Act in considering amendments to the Superintendent's contract."

In November, board member Virginia Charles accused her fellow members of "deliberately and willfully attempting to subvert the meaning and intention" of state laws by trying to slip through what she said was potentially an illegal contract renewal and voting on the matter in closed session, which Charles also thought was not allowed.

The other board members, headed by then-Chairman Jane B. Schuchardt, denied taking a vote.

"The Compliance Board was simply not set up to resolve disputed issues of fact," the opinion stated, further noting, however, that "the Act would not have precluded a vote on a matter legally considered," such as that one.

"One board member may disagree about what actually happened in that closed meeting," said Sandra H. French, the current school board chairman. "But the bottom line is we had the right to make the decision according to the open-meetings law."

French said that the peace of mind the decision brings still did not warrant the process, which should have begun, she said, with a phone call to the chairman and the vice chairman from PTA Council executives.

"Then, if there were additional concerns, they could have gone on from there," French said.

The PTA Council has said it questioned board member James P. O'Donnell during the investigation, which was appropriate because he is the board's liaison to the council.

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