The only way citizens can protect their own rights is to know their rights. And we have to know them as well as or better than those who seek to deny them.
From violations of the Open Meetings Act, to regulations made without the protections of the legislative process, to board meetings lacking reasonable public access, there is a culture of opaqueness that pervades our public school system on all levels in Maryland.
The Maryland Department of Education (MDE) has the authority to set regulations, which have the force of law, without the processes involved in passing legislation. Citizens are represented through our elected legislators, not through appointed board members. If the school board adopts regulations the public doesn’t agree with, we have little recourse – we can’t fire them or vote them out! The issue is explained in greater detail here.
While the authority of the MDE to function in quasi-legislative and quasi-judicial roles is authorized by law, some protections of the public’s right to government involvement are also authorized. But these protections are not self-enforcing and are routinely ignored. The more officials get away with excluding the public without being called out, the more we are training them to continue to exclude us. Case in point: the Maryland Open Meetings Act.
The Baltimore County Board of Education met in January in a series of secret, closed door meetings with our county executive to discuss the education budget. These meetings resulted in an $18 million decrease in the budget, all occurring without sunshine. See previous article on the violation here.
If you notice any public body that routinely makes unanimous or nearly unanimous votes with little to no dissension, chances are there are regular illegal closed door meetings occurring in addition to the required public meetings.
Not only do we have a lack of sunshine because of improperly closed meetings and off-the-record discussions, but we have lack of access to OPEN meetings too.
Ever tried to attend a board meeting of the state school board? Take all day off work, fight morning rush hour traffic to get down into Baltimore City, pay $12 for parking, sit through the morning session to get part of the important agenda items, and twiddle your thumbs during the adjournment to the closed Executive Session which lasts one-and-a-half to two hours. If there is no delay in the schedule you’ll get to the public comment period in mid to late afternoon only to discover the sign up to speak is done by phone and email prior to the day of the meeting rather than in-person registration, testify for three minutes, then fight rush hour traffic back home. If you are not within a reasonable driving distance of Baltimore City, you’re out of luck. The board does not livestream their meetings even though they represent citizens statewide up to three hours of driving distance away. Does that reflect the drumbeat of transparency and accountability?