City school board found to vi­o­late Open Meet­ings Act

Baltimore Sun - - NEWS - By Erica L. Green­ twit­­caLG

The Bal­ti­more school board vi­o­lated the Mary­land Open Meet­ing Com­pli­ance Act on two oc­ca­sions when it held closed-door meet­ings to dis­cuss re­plac­ing for­mer schools CEO Gre­gory Thorn­ton, a state board has ruled.

Mar­nell Cooper, chair of the school board, an­nounced the de­ci­sion is­sued by the Mary­land OpenMeet­ing Com­pli­ance Board at Tues­day night’s meet­ing. He said the Oct. 6 opin­ion, spurred by a cit­i­zen com­plaint, found that two of six meet­ings cited in the com­plaint were not prop­erly an­nounced or doc­u­mented.

Dur­ing pub­lic com­ment at Tues­day’s meet­ing, a cit­i­zen who has crit­i­cized the board re­peat­edly for fir­ing Thorn­ton took credit for the com­plaints and read the opin­ion aloud be­fore Cooper did. The board was re­quired to dis­close the opin­ion.

“Please know this board takes these find­ings se­ri­ously, and that it will take nec­es­sary steps to pre­vent any fur­ther vi­o­la­tions,” Cooper said.

Thorn­ton left the CEO po­si­tion in May after serv­ing less than two years of his four-year-con­tract. On the night the board an­nounced his de­par­ture, it said that it had cho­sen for­mer chief aca­demic of­fi­cer Sonja San­telises to suc­ceed him July 1.

The board re­vealed later that it had held a months-long search after meet­ing in the fall and in­form­ing Thorn­ton in De­cem­ber that they would be­gin a search for a new leader in Jan­uary.

San­telises was of­fered the job in April and was an­nounced as the next schools chief in May.

On Tues­day, Cooper said the com­pli­ance board found that a Nov. 10, 2015, meet­ing vi­o­lated the state law when the board’s dis­cus­sion “went be­yond the mere ad­min­is­tra­tion of the su­per­in­ten­dent’s con­tract and be­yond eval­u­a­tion.”

That com­pli­ance board said school of­fi­cials did not prop­erly vote to close the meet­ing and that its sub­se­quent ex­pla­na­tion was “de­fi­cient.” The board also did not sum­ma­rize the closed ses­sion in its min­utes as re­quired. Cooper said Tues­day he would look into whether the min­utes could be made pub­lic.

The com­pli­ance board also found that a Jan. 18 meet­ing, dur­ing which the board for­mu­lated a plan for the search process and a con­tract, also vi­o­lated the Open Meet­ings Act. Cooper de­scribed the meet­ing as an “unan­nounced and closed emer­gency meet­ing,” but the board did not pro­vide no­tice for the meet­ing or prop­erly vote to close it.

The com­pli­ance board found that four other meet­ings that were chal­lenged, held on March 8, 21 and 22 and April 12, did not vi­o­late the act be­cause they con­cerned ad­min­is­tra­tive func­tions, Cooper said.

While most su­per­in­ten­dent searches are con­fi­den­tial, they usu­ally are an­nounced. And school sys­tems of­ten is­sue re­quests for pro­pos­als from search firms and pub­licly vote on the win­ning con­tract.

In hir­ing the search firm, the board also took ex­treme mea­sures to keep the search off the pub­lic’s radar.

It worked with a lo­cal busi­ness that paid a search firm $36,000, Cooper said. Be­cause a pri­vate com­pany hired and paid the search firm, the board did not have to take a pub­lic vote on the con­tract, which would have alerted the pub­lic to a search. School board mem­bers ini­tially be­gan contacting can­di­dates about the job, and the search firm vet­ted them.

San­telises, who was re­quired to sign a nondis­clo­sure agree­ment along with other can­di­dates, was one of four fi­nal­ists to make it to the vet­ting process.

Some po­lit­i­cal lead­ers, par­ents and com­mu­nity mem­bers crit­i­cized the board for not so­lic­it­ing pub­lic in­put be­fore oust­ing Thorn­ton or be­fore choos­ing his re­place­ment.

They also felt de­ceived be­cause for months be­fore the an­nounce­ment, both Cooper and Thorn­ton said the schools chief would serve out his con­tract.

Cooper has said the board be­lieved that an early an­nounce­ment of Thorn­ton’s de­par­ture would have been a dis­trac­tion for both the district and the pub­lic, and would have un­der­mined Thorn­ton’s abil­ity to lead.

How­ever, many oth­ers be­lieved that the board had to act with ur­gency be­cause of per­sis­tent calls for Thorn­ton’s ouster, a se­ries of op­er­a­tional mishaps, and a poor first-year eval­u­a­tion of Thorn­ton made pub­lic by The Bal­ti­more Sun.

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