Jeff Meadors: School boards sometimes need lessons in open government

Jeff Meadors

Jeff Meadors

On its last day in session, the 2012 Georgia General Assembly passed House Bill 397, changing the course of Open Records and Open Meetings acts for Georgia schools.

In the past year, the Cobb County BOE avoided open meetings prosecution by opting in for face time with the attorney general. Claimants argued some board members used system email to conduct school business in quorums tantamount to holding official meetings.

Also this year, state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver filed an AG complaint against the DeKalb BOE, claiming absence of public voting by the school board on redistricting. DeKalb suffered recent accusations over its refusal, until last week, to release a forensic audit listing allegations of nepotism as "persistent" and board members trying to influence hiring decisions. Newton BOE is scheduled to vote on a recommendation to abolish local board policy on staff conflicts of interest at its meeting Tuesday in deference to state law.

The City of Dunwoody, which pays a healthy millage rate to the DeKalb BOE, floated discussion last week of separating from embattled DeKalb to create a separate city system of its own.

The Newton County BOE subjected itself to Attorney General scrutiny along with others this year as well. Responding to published school board resolutions on charters, Attorney General Sam Olens stated, "The government can't tax you and then use your tax money to tell you how to vote," in a recent Marietta Daily Journal story.

The Gwinnett County BOE leaped onto the AG radar for using education funds to pay the salaries of two Chamber of Commerce employees since 2007 with no minutes existing evidencing a board vote on the matter.

Gwinnett issued an apparent response admitting the absence of any board meeting where the topic was discussed, confessing no vote was ever taken. The system estimated education funds given to the chamber currently total approximately $900,000.

Also, this year the AG's office met with the Bibb County community and gave that school board a lesson in sunshine. But there was a problem. Most of the school board failed to show up; the AG's office expressed sharp disappointment.

Article 4 of HB 397 establishes: The General Assembly finds and declares that the strong public policy of this state is in favor of open government; that open government is essential to a free, open, and democratic society; and that public access to public records should be encouraged to foster confidence in government and so that the public can evaluate the expenditure of public funds and the efficient and proper functioning of its institutions.

And for boards blocking document production by invoking board attorneys, even if in name only? HB 397 protects attorney-client privilege and attorney work product but there is no legal protection offered to factual findings of a board attorney, only legal conclusions.

Can some boards convince an electorate to put a SPLOST penny in their outstretched hands come March 2013?

Jeff Meadors may be reached at pjeffreymeadors@gmail.com.