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Leaning in direction of concealment

At a time when the phrase “freedom is not free” has become popular, citizens should be reminded, freedom of information isn’t free either.
The newspaper isn’t a crystal ball that can explain all the motivations and considerations of school and town boards, and without the support of the public, journalists can be effectively stonewalled.
In other words, public involvement in local boards shouldn’t stop at the voting booths, and the public should be aware of just how much power they place in the hands of the officials they elected.
While it is not always better to be discrete, public boards will generally lean in the direction of concealment rather than disclosure when the law calls for the board’s discretion.
Consider hiring a new employee.
In executive session, the board can interview candidates and discuss applications. Recommendations can also be made. The only thing the board cannot do is make a decision. Determining whether the line between decision and discussion was crossed in an executive session is virtually impossible because those meetings are private.
During the public meeting, the board can vote on the “recommendation” or “Candidate No. 1,” and after the new employee has been hired, reveal his or her identity.
When these steps are taken, it isn’t because the board is trying to be mean to the local newspaper reporter … or at least not usually. Job candidates may wish to have their anonymity preserved so as not to endanger their current position.
Unfortunately, conducting the hiring process in this way completely prevents the public from providing what could have been valuable input. In the case of school boards, this eliminates parent involvement in deciding who will interact with their children throughout the school day.
Even if a board shared all its information with the public, there is no guarantee the public would be heard. Speakers are allowed and limited at the board’s discretion.
That includes employees of the board who are facing criticism or disciplinary action.
Discussion of employee matters is generally reserved for executive session, but give-and-take discussion regarding performance is allowed if the employee is willing, but, once again, at the board’s discretion.
Outside criticism of an employee of the board is similarly regulated. The board can hear complaints against an employee in either public session or executive session. Town and school boards rarely hear these complaints before the public because of the danger of providing a forum for libelous remarks.
A common misuse of this freedom occurs when boards fail to hear criticism except in the case of tenured employees, like teachers or police officers, who have lost favor with the board.
Another situation unique to school boards is student misconduct. Student educational records are protected through the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act. Educators aren’t at liberty to disclose this information, but student disciplinary records are another matter.
A student that commits a crime at school is not protected. The school can release the student’s identity, as can law enforcement.
This type of information might prompt parents to take action in the interest of their children, but they can’t act on information that they do not have.
School boards and administrators are usually reluctant to release this kind of information.
These are just a few examples of how private a public meeting can be, and why it is important for the public to observe the actions of elected boards, make expectations for disclosure clear and choose their members wisely.
A cast ballot could really be the last say the public has … if it is left to the board’s discretion.