A recent split vote on the Fulton County Board of Education highlights concerns one member has over the issue of public access.
At the Jan. 14 School Board meeting, member Katie Reeves cast the lone dissent on an otherwise routine vote to elect a new board president and vice president.
The five-term board member from North Fulton said she fully supports the new officers, but cast the “nay” vote to highlight her increasing concerns over the board’s transparency.
“Over the past year I’ve come to realize the board officers and I may have differing views on accountability and transparency,” Reeves said in a written statement. “I made several suggestions to change our process…but the board took a vote and I was the only one who felt that way.”
She said her concerns focus on the board’s increasing use of pre-work sessions to discuss items prior to the monthly work session and formal board meeting.
While work sessions and board meetings are streamed live and recorded, pre-work sessions are not. Board retreats, held several times a year, are also not on camera.
“Pre-work session on camera would enable our vast constituency to observe the issues the board discusses around policy,” Reeves wrote. “By the time policies make it to the agenda (of work sessions or formal meetings) they have been significantly vetted and there is little discussion.”
Traditionally, the board has relied on its monthly work session to discuss agenda items prior to voting at the official board meeting. Reeves is concerned the “real” discussions are now taking place in the pre-work sessions which have limited public access because of location and logistics.
A spokesman for Fulton Schools said the pre-work sessions are held in both north and south Fulton and open to anyone who wishes to attend. He did acknowledge very few members of the public attend.
“Participation in all meetings varies by interest,” said Brian Noyes, Fulton Schools communication director. “Pre-work sessions and retreats have lower attendance than the monthly board meetings.”
North Fulton residents who wish attend a pre-work session in South Fulton face up to a 50-mile drive through Atlanta to attend the location in Union City. South Fulton residents traveling to the meeting location in Sandy Springs also face a long drive.
Noyes said the pre-work session is a “valuable part of the process” the board uses to make decisions.
“Pre-work sessions, which I am told began in 2017 but had been used in various cases in the past, along with board retreats, are used to bring items before the board for their initial feedback in order to create a collaborative approach to developing plans and policies,” Noyes said.
A review of pre-work sessions since 2017 shows an increasing reliance on these “off camera” meetings. In 2017 only three pre-work sessions were held, all on single-issue topics including the budget process and construction updates.
In 2018, the number grew to six. Each addressed issues relating to budget, construction and hot-button topics like the financial impact of a senior exemption.
In 2019, the pre-work sessions escalated to 14 meetings over the course of the year and began to focus on policy issues, such as changes to the curriculum, the authority of the board and the superintendent, employee leave, complaints process, and campaign activities of board members. Additionally, the board held four retreats which, although open to the public, are not taped.
Reeves said the shift in focus to policy discussions, along with the escalating number of meetings held without cameras has her alarmed. In October alone, board members held a two-day retreat and two pre-work sessions.
“I fully support [Superintendent Mike Looney’s] effort to implement a new process of reviewing our policies, in fact I think it shows great promise,” Reeves said. “[However] much of the rich board discussion happens in an open meeting in the middle of the day that is not on camera.”
The pre-work sessions do not violate the state’s Open Meeting Act which requires public access and published notice of any meeting where a quorum of board members assemble to discuss official business. The law has no requirement for streaming or taping meetings.
The Fulton School Board, however, is not providing “board briefs” of the pre-work sessions which summarizes the content of the meeting. Board briefs are made available for work sessions and the monthly board meetings. Reeves said while she is disappointed the board will not consider televising the pre-work sessions, she respects the board’s decisions.
“Of course, now that the board has taken a position, I will fully support it, just as I fully support our new board officers,” she said.
Julia Bernath (Sandy Springs) was elected board president and Linda Bryant (South Fulton) is vice president.