Feb. 13 closed meeting with Hairston criticized

School board is urged not to sidestep public access

March 15, 2006|By LIZ F. KAY .. | LIZ F. KAY ..,SUN REPORTER

Baltimore County school board members confirmed yesterday that some on the panel met recently behind closed doors with Superintendent Joe A. Hairston to discuss a middle school that faces potential sanctions - a move that sparked criticism from the board president and the head of county PTAs.

Five of the 12 members, including the board's student member, said they met with the superintendent Feb. 13 at the school system's Greenwood headquarters to discuss Woodlawn Middle School, where staff members could be replaced if pupils do not reach performance targets on standardized tests.

Yesterday, board President Tom Grzymski, who was not present at the meeting, said it was "not good board practice."

"I would prefer if they did not do that, but I can only steer the ship," Grzymski said.

Michael C. Franklin, president of the Baltimore County Council of PTAs, objected to the meeting.

"What is there to hide? We all want the situation to be fixed," he said.

Board member Frances A.S. Harris, who attended the February session, said some members were interested in meeting with the superintendent on issues involving Woodlawn Middle.

"It wasn't like we needed to make major decisions," Harris said. "We just wanted to catch up."

Board member John A. Hayden III, who said he was at the meeting, said, "This wasn't public noisemaking. This was ... coming out of the heart of a number of board members," Hayden said.

Hayden and Harris, along with board member Rodger C. Janssen, said they and other board members often contact the superintendent to ask specific questions. "It would be absurd to say that everything we have to do we have to do in the boardroom with everybody there," Hayden said.

Janssen, a member since 2004, said he and other board members have on occasion met privately with Hairston "ever since I've been on the board."

He said that everything that was discussed at the February meeting has been discussed in open session.

Attempts to obtain comment yesterday from Hairston were not successful.

Maryland's open-meetings law requires public bodies to announce meetings and take notes whenever the majority of its members meet - seven members for the county school board. Boards can meet in private for specific reasons stated in the law, including personnel matters, contract negotiations or pending litigation.

Bobbie Walton, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, said the meeting "shows bad judgment" and sidesteps the intent of the state's open-meetings law.

"It seems to me that in the interest of public accountability, in the interest of getting parents and schools to work together, there wouldn't be this air of us-against-them or secrecy," she said.

Maggie Kennedy, chairwoman of the Baltimore County Education Coalition, asked the board at its public meeting last night to follow the intent of the open-meetings law.

Woodlawn Middle School pupils did not meet performance targets on the state's reading and math tests last year and in 2003. In January, school board members approved a "restructuring" plan that requires all Woodlawn Middle staff members to reapply for their jobs. The state Board of Education approved the plan March 1.

Sam Macer, Woodlawn Middle's PTA president and a vice president on the PTA Council, said one board member had asked him about the history of Woodlawn's Middle's performance before the private meeting. "I feel good that they are focusing on it," Macer said. "I'm glad somebody is doing something."

In 2003, Franklin, the PTA council president, was among parents who criticized eight school board members who split into two separate sessions to discuss the school budget with Hairston. Talking yesterday about the February meeting, he said, "What floors me is that they'll do it for no good reason. They've always been able to skirt around it technically. They've gotten pretty good at knowing what to do to not violate the law."

Grzymski said he was not invited to the February meeting. He said board members could ask the president or vice president to add an item to the agenda of a regular meeting.

Board member Ramona N. Johnson said she attended the meeting. When asked why members did not seek to put it on the agenda for a future public meeting, she said, "Going forward, we should certainly consider that."

liz.kay@baltsun.com

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