The Howard County Board of Education heard an appeal of Bruce M. Venter's firing last night after the school system's former chief business officer agreed to drop efforts to have the proceedings open to the public.
A decision was not expected last night, said Venter's attorney, Allen Dyer.
The school board voted 3-2 to hear Venter's appeal under the personnel exception in the state Open Meetings Act, with Courtney Watson, the board chairman, and James P. O'Donnell, the vice chairman, opposing the motion. The board then met behind closed doors for two hours.
Generally, cases involving personnel matters are closed to the public, but Venter and Dyer had been fighting for an open appeal.
Venter was fired in September last year by then-Superintendent John R. O'Rourke for issues stemming from the construction of the county's 12th high school, Marriott's Ridge, which is scheduled to open next fall. Venter has said his termination was arbitrary.
Venter, now working for the Isle of Wight school system in Virginia, is seeking reinstatement, back pay and benefits.
Last month, Dyer requested that oral arguments before the school board be conducted in public, but the board denied the request, citing a personnel exception under the Maryland Open Meetings Act. Calling the closed hearing a possible violation, Dyer filed a complaint with the state Open Meetings Compliance Board.
In turn, the school board postponed the hearing originally scheduled for Nov. 16 until the compliance board ruled on the matter.
In response to Dyer's complaint, board attorney Judith S. Bresler last week offered another reason the proceedings should be closed to the public: The arguments are part of a quasi-judicial process which is excluded from the Open Meetings Act.
Dyer, as a result, withdrew his complaint to the compliance board because it would not have jurisdiction over the matter. But he renewed his efforts for an open appeal hearing, arguing that Venter had a right to an open judicial proceeding.
The school board wrestled with the open-meetings issue for two hours last night.
Board members expressed confusion over Dyer's latest attempt to keep the hearing open and said they - along with Leslie Stellman, an attorney representing O'Rourke - did not have enough time to consider his request, filed Friday.
"I don't know if I want to rush through this," Vice Chairman O'Donnell said. "My preference would be to take the time this evening to find out where we are and how we're going to proceed."
Chairman Watson said a larger issue is at stake. After criticism that the school board was engaging in secretive practices, the General Assembly approved a bill last year stripping the Howard County board of the power to meet in executive session to hear appeals.
As a result, the school board determined that hearings on appeals would be considered meetings and could be closed under certain exceptions allowed under the Open Meetings Act, including personnel matters.
But Dyer's latest request calls into question the school board's assumption and needs to be answered before members could move forward on Venter's appeal, Watson said.
To end an appeals process that has stretched to 15 months, Dyer said he would withdraw his motion and his client would agree to a closed proceeding.
The school board then voted to go into a closed session to discuss Dyer's offer with Bresler, its attorney.
The board returned to its meeting room after nearly an hour, and member Joshua Kaufman asked for and got assurance from Dyer that he would not file a complaint with the compliance board or use the subsequent closed hearing on Venter's firing as grounds for an appeal.
"He wants closure," Dyer said of Venter.
Earlier yesterday, the school board heard arguments in a disciplinary case involving a former Folly Quarter Middle School pupil accused of providing vodka during a bus ride to school in the spring, who appealed his 45-day suspension.
Philip Ashtianie, a freshmen at River Hill High School, waived his confidentiality rights, allowing the proceedings to be open to the public.
The pupil is asking for an apology, that his record to be cleared of the incident and that changes be made in the way the school system handles long-term disciplinary actions.
In September, a hearing examiner found that the evidence presented in an earlier appeals hearing did not support the 45-day suspension.