Sound Off: Open school district meetings, too

In Washington, almost every meeting of a government body must be open to the public. The Open Public Meetings Act requires this, and for good reason. This law allows us — the public — to see how our elected officials are making decisions about the taxes we pay and the powers we give them.

Not every government body wants to follow the Open Public Meetings Act. For example, the Oak School District refuses to allow the public to attend meetings about how to balance the district’s budget. That’s our money they’re making decisions about. Only special, invited committee members — district staff and teachers unions, mostly — are allowed to weigh in on what cuts will be made to the district’s budget. While the School Board ultimately approves these cuts, the “deal” the committee comes up with, such as closing the Clover Valley Elementary School, will almost certainly be what we — the taxpayers — are stuck with. But when we try to observe the meetings, we are told to leave.

The world will not end if Oak Harbor residents are allowed to observe decisions about how their money will be spent. While the City Council is considering videotaping their meetings to allow more of the public to see how they make decisions, the school district is going in the opposite direction: closing off decision-making and keeping the public (literally) locked out.

I recently asked the Attorney General’s Office about this. Tim Ford, the Attorney General’s Open Government Ombudsman, and an expert on laws like the Open Public Meetings Act, wrote that it was “shocking” that the school district closed these meetings. I hired an attorney in Olympia to look into this. He wrote and asked the school district what harm would there be in allowing the public to simply sit in the audience and see how decisions about our tax dollars are being made. The district has not yet responded.

The school district has its own television channel (21) on the local cable system. They use it to televise numerous school district-related events and to broadcast other school district-related information. But unlike City Council members, who appear to be embracing videotaping/televising their workshops and committee meetings, each time our School Board directors have been asked about televising School Board meetings, they have unanimously said “no”. The school district appears to be following the Board’s example/attitude about this and also chooses not to televise any major committee meetings of the school district.

I think it would be enlightening for the School Board to video-record and televise their meetings and retreats / workshops, and the same for major school district committee meetings. Even if the Open Public Meetings Act does not require all of these events to be open and/or televised, what harm can be done by better-enabling the community to see and hear how school district decisions are made?

William Burnett is an Oak Harbor resident.

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