Looking for more improvement

Published 9:00 pm Friday, November 29, 2019

A lapse in a small but important function in the Suffolk school system, and the loophole in state law and gap in local policy it exposed, seems to be on its way to getting fixed.

For several months, agendas and information on agenda items for the Suffolk School Board were not being released in a timely manner. As a result, members of the public were left unprepared or unable to speak on important topics at several meetings, and at least one School Board member even felt unprepared to vote at a meeting earlier this year, saying he had only received the agenda and informational material earlier that same day.

State law states that meeting notices must be posted at least three working days prior to a meeting. However, meeting notices and agendas are not the same thing.

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State law also states that agendas and materials must be provided to the public at the same time they are provided to the members of the public body itself. However, there is no time frame given for this, so a public body could provide the agenda to its members right as the meeting starts and still be on the right side of the law so long as it posts the agenda online at the same time. Doing that benefits nobody — not the members of the public body, not the public and not those the public body is supposed to be serving — and it certainly doesn’t advance the interests of transparency and accountability.

The Suffolk School Board also had no policy to address this issue previously.

We continue to advocate that the General Assembly give this issue time and attention in its upcoming session and consider updating the Freedom of Information Act to address this issue. Doing so would prevent public bodies not only here in Suffolk but also across the state from delaying the release of agendas, either intentionally or unintentionally.

But we are pleased that the Suffolk School Board appears to be on its way to making itself accountable on this front. The agenda for November’s meeting was released in a timely manner, and the Policy Review Committee has proposed requiring meeting agendas to be released at least a week in advance. The board could formally adopt this policy as early as its Dec. 12 meeting.

The one-week policy would mean members would need to submit items they want on the agenda at least two weeks in advance to give division staff time to prepare. While this may be a little more than necessary, we do not find it to be onerous for a body that typically meets only once a month, and it’s surely better to overshoot the mark than to continue in the haphazard way this has been conducted the last few months.

We look forward to continued improvement on this issue.