By the San Marcos Local News Editorial Board
Through the years, the media in San Marcos hasn’t been sufficiently attentive to the proceedings of the San Marcos CISD Board of Trustees, or the administration. Unaccustomed as they must be to operating in the presence of reporters or other public observers, perhaps it’s understandable that school officials would misunderstand the law.
But it’s not understandable that, under conditions of ignorance, they would err on the side of darkness. As the highest taxing entity in any Texas community, school districts don’t merely owe transparency to the public. School districts are essentially public business and are therefore obligated at the core of their existence and function to operate in the open, without tricks or deception. That’s the law, and it is the right law.
On June 24, the trustees called a special meeting. Here is how the agenda read:
I. Call to Order
A. Roll Call – Establish Quorum
II. Budget Workshop
III. Discussion of Current Issues
The “current issues” under discussion included an adjustment in the school district’s sex education policy to adopt “abstinence plus,” which involves teaching about abstinence and contraception. The present policy is to teach abstinence only.
Another topic under “current issues” was the establishment of an academy structure at San Marcos High School. Unlike abstinence plus, the academy program had been somewhat discussed previously in public. The abstinence plus discussion came completely from the dark, and no one outside of the inner school loop had any idea that a topic of such fundamental importance to this community was under consideration. By fudging the agenda and by other action at that meeting, which will be taken up later in this discussion, school officials really let this community down.
The sex education topic is on the agenda, properly, for Monday night’s school board meeting. As to the June 24 agenda, we believe that placing “discussion of current issues” on that agenda without specifically mentioning that one of the issues would be sex education constitutes a violation the Texas Open Meetings Act.
On October 6, 2008, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott issued an opinion in which he said meeting notices posted by governmental bodies that are “general and generic” in nature do not “sufficiently notify a reader, as a member of the interested public, of the subjects … to be discussed at any particular meeting.” Abbott also noted that courts have established the precedent whereby provisions of the Open Meetings Act are to be “liberally construed in favor of open government,” in the words of a 2007 Texas appeals court decision. Abbott also cited a 1986 Texas Supreme Court decision in which justices ruled that notices “should specifically disclose the subjects to be considered at the upcoming meeting … particularly where the subject slated for discussion is one of special interest to the public.”
An open government hotline attorney with the Texas Attorney General’s Office declined to offer comment regarding the school board’s actions, but referred to Abbott’s 2008 aforementioned opinion, Opinion No. GA-0668.
Said San Marcos CISD Superintendent Patty Shafer in response: “Generally, for regular board meetings, you’ll see everything very specifically listed, and this was just a time when they wanted to talk about a variety of different things that have been brought up. So normally, in special workshops, sometimes you don’t list everything in the way you do in the regular board meetings … I feel pretty secure in that, but next time we have one, I might want to go ahead and double-check with our attorney to be sure. My understanding was we were okay, but if it’s something that seems to be a matter of concern, then I might want to check with him before the next meeting that we have like that. We hardly ever have those. This is kind of an unusual thing. It’s just that there were a lot of things out there they wanted (to discuss). If we should be listing more specifically, we’ll definitely do that, though. We’re trying to do everything in the proper way. Not to say we don’t make mistakes sometimes, but we’re trying to.”
We’ll accept that. But there’s more. San Marcos Local News sent a reporter, Sean Batura, to that meeting. Shafer demanded that Batura turn off his audio recording device. Shafer said the school district’s attorney told her she could prohibit the public from making audio recordings of the meeting.
A few days later, Shafer conceded that board meetings can be recorded, though recording devices must be placed in locations authorized by the district. Shafer said the attorney disallowed the taping because the district did not have adequate time to review the current law, and said the district would not have been caught off guard had the reporter submitted a request to record beforehand. No such request is required by the Open Meetings Act, though the law allows a governmental body to “adopt reasonable rules to maintain order at a meeting, including … rules relating to the location of recording equipment.”
Needless to say, we’re appalled by Shafer’s demand, which cuts straight against the heart of the public’s interest to be informed of the school board’s activities in a public forum. School districts have no business being “caught off guard” by anyone with a recorder at a board meeting, because they’ve missed the point if they’re on their guard in the first place.
A year ago, a school board candidate, who lost, argued that trustees meetings ought to be broadcast so people in the community can see them in action. The arguments against the candidate’s position amounted to an insistence that money and logistics made such an initiative untenable. In light of this most recent episode, it would appear there’s more to it than that.
Public school districts pay good money to school administrators and their public information officers, who are ostensibly hired to provide facts to citizens and, in practice, can wind up marketing the interests of the administrators and politicians who hire them. Thus, a certain evasion of reality concerning the public’s interest in the school district grows into school administration. But when that evasion ascends to the level of prohibiting anyone from recording a public meeting of a public entity that is subsidized by public expenditure, we have witnessed a serious loss of perspective and purpose.
We remind San Marcos CISD that its business is public business, and it is the public’s business and prerogative to know and understand the school district’s proceedings. Interference with the public’s pursuit of such knowledge, particularly on matters of central social importance such as sex education in schools, is not to be tolerated.Email | Print