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Committee gets clarification on open meetings

The Suffolk School Board’s Policy Review Committee received clarification on what meetings should be open to the public during its Monday meeting.

“All meetings of standing committees and advisory committees shall be open to the public, except where a closed meeting is permitted under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act,” School Board attorney Wendell Waller said.

Waller said the School Board website would be used to notify the public of the meetings.

No public notice was given of the committee’s last meeting on March 28. At that meeting, there was discussion of open meeting requirements, according to the minutes of that meeting. A notice on the Suffolk Public Schools website was given for a scheduled May 7 meeting and for Monday’s meeting after the one on May 7 was postponed.

Board Vice Chair Dr. Judith Brooks-Buck asked whether meetings like ones board members have had in the past with the superintendent be allowed. In those, she noted that board members would meet with the superintendent in groups of two.

“It really goes back to whether or not you’re meeting as the standing committee of the board, or whether you’re simply meeting as two board members,” Waller said. “If you’re only meeting as two board members, you can come up here and meet at any time with the superintendent to discuss school issues, and it’s not open to anybody, because you have to have at least three of you meeting with the superintendent for it to be open.”

But if they were meeting as a standing committee of the board, such as the Finance Committee, then it’s an open meeting, Waller said.

“I think that one of the things that will help everyone with all of this was when you began to have set meeting dates,” Waller said. “When you say, for example, that the Finance Committee is going to be meeting on such-and-such a date, unless canceled. So you have a list of meeting dates that you predetermine and you’re going to meet on those dates unless you decide that the meeting is not necessary, that way everybody knows when these standing committees are formally and officially meeting.”

Waller also noted that other board members could attend the meetings of standing or advisory committees, but they could not participate in the discussions if they were not on the committee.

Brooks-Buck asked if that meant a board member who was not a part of the committee could not discuss the meeting publicly.

“They can probably go out and talk about it, but they can’t take an active part in the discussion (in the meeting) of that advisory committee,” Waller said.
“But reporting about it after is (OK) because it’s been an open meeting,” said the committee’s other board member, Sherri Story.

Waller agreed with that.

Waller said the reason board members should not be voicing opinions at an advisory committee is because at some point, the board is going to have to vote on whatever comes out of the committee.

“If the board member has already voiced an opinion on something at that committee meeting that’s later going to come for a vote, the board member may have to abstain from voting,” Waller said.

Story questioned why a board member not on a committee could not participate in a discussion during the meeting. She said a board member “engaging in conversation is not always interfering.”

“One of the things you have to be concerned about not only actual conflicts, but the appearance of impropriety,” Waller said.

Waller also noted that the Pupil Personnel Committee is different than the other board committees in that it “may begin as an open meeting, (but) then they go into a closed meeting to deal with the individual student issues.”

“Once they go into a closed meeting, they can then determine who can sit in that closed meeting, and then the only people who are allowed to go into the closed meeting are those that are directly involved,” Waller said.

The only people in attendance at Monday’s meeting were Brooks-Buck, Story, Waller, administrative assistant Renee Davenport and a Suffolk News-Herald reporter.

The Policy Review Committee also received a look at a draft of social media guidelines for employees and reviewed citizen advisory committees during Monday’s meeting.