Friday, January 18, 2013

Thoughts On Being a Public School

Several months ago, the District field a cross complaint, asking the courts to evaluate whether BCS is truly a public school.   BCS has ridiculed the cross complaint, both in the press and in front of the courts.  At the core of the cross complaint, we've said they behave more like a private school than a public school.  This isn't meant to be a derogatory statement- our community has many private schools, and they seem to do a good job of educating students.  However, they aren't bound by the same rules that public schools are bound by- they can choose what students they accept, they are free from many of the obligations of public schools.  Let's step away from the heated discussion for a moment, and consider a simpler example: public meetings.

Because LASD is a public school district, we conduct our meetings under the Brown Act.  BCS has said that they follow the Brown Act.  Wanny Hersey has asserted this in communications with me and with the SCCBOE, including this instance, from an exchange in Dec 2011 where she also derides LASD for an unspecified Brown Act violation.  So let's look at this a bit deeper.

LASD does our best to follow not just the letter of the Brown Act, but the spirit of the law also.  I've personally been involved in discussions where we chose to delay meetings rather than utilize the "short notice" provisions under the Act.  We ensure the public has a place to wait while we meet in closed session, and when we anticipate a large crowd, we hold the meeting in an appropriate venue.  We also ensure that we receive public input before closed session, and report out any actions taken.

By contrast, I've seen several instances where BCS has either explicitly violated the Brown Act, or has skated dangerously close to doing so.  Some examples:

BCS posted a meeting notice stating that their meeting would be held Nov 6, 2012.  I found that odd, since Nov 6 was election day.  I snapped a photo of the notice as posted on the evening of Nov 4th.  When BCS apparently recognized the mistake, they simply changed the date on the agenda they emailed out on November 5th.  The minutes from that meeting - held November 5th- can be found on the BCS web site here.  The first part was likely an honest clerical error, but someone recognized the error before the meeting was held.  Rather than delay the meeting, they moved forward with a meeting that was not noticed to the public.

In May 2012, during a particularly contentious period, LASDVoices was regularly attending BCS Board Meetings.  Here is the report of one member of that group (in an email to the SCCBOE) about how the "report out from closed session" was handled.  In a nutshell, the email suggest that the "report out" was never made, or was done so in a manner that seems intentionally designed to deprive the public of knowing what happened.

Today, BCS held a meeting at the Gordon and Betty Moore foundation offices in Palo Alto, which puts them about 4 miles from BCS/Egan, and are definitely outside District Boundaries.  I don't know whether BCS is compliant with the "meet within the jurisdiction" requirement based on the fact that they are chartered with the County.  However, is it that difficult to find meeting space within the District's boundaries, so that community members can attend? 

I've also previously blogged about my experiences with BCS Board members when I recorded their board meetings, also explicitly permitted under the Brown Act.  Board member Janet Medlin took strong exception to my efforts, and also strongly criticized me for publishing the sworn deposition of a BCS Board member. 

During today's meeting, BCS Board Member Janet Medlin once again took me to task, it appears, for how I've insisted that the BCS facilities meetings this year be very public.  She posted part of an email exchange wherein she agreed with my request for public meetings, and implied to the public that she'd initiated the discussion.  I don't care about who gets credit, but I do care a lot that in that same exchange, she was arguing in favor of a "pre-meeting", a meeting over the weekend in advance of the LASD Board meeting.  I don't know how she thought that her proposal kept with my requirement that the meetings be public, but it certainly didn't come out in the full email exchange

So What?
To borrow a now famous phrase, "so what?"  These seem like small, innocuous things.  When it comes to serious matters of law, the general public might call these "technicalities" and accuse me of being overly pedantic.  That's part of the point, though.  The law *is* pedantic.  It demands that we follow it at all times.  LASD has a culture of understanding the legal requirements and following them in all aspects of how we conduct ourselves, from the largest matters of what students we educate down to the little things like how we post notice of our meetings.  If we educated 98% of our students in accordance with the law, there would still be nearly 100 children deprived of their rights to a public education.  To me, that isn't acceptable.

I work in private industry during the day.  I'm used to calling meetings on a split second notice, and reacting quickly to the situation.  As a public official, though, I have to be more measured.  I have a responsibility to the public, and part of that means ensuring the public can participate in the process.  I highlight this because I'm not convinced that all members of the BCS Board fully understand what it means to be a public entity.  Some BCS Board members (and especially their attorney) have scoffed at the District's allegations.  I'm not saying that all of these incidents were born out of ill intent.  However, I do think that some members of the BCS Board haven't fully internalized what it means to be a public entity, and to accept taxpayer funds.  It's easy to overlook the details, but it's not fair to say that the details don't matter.  The details do matter, because every child is entitled to a great public education- even the ones that don't attend a charter school.