By Steven Brown
PROVIDENCE — For the third time in less than two months, the ACLU of Rhode Island has taken legal action against the state Board of Education for violating open government laws. They all involve the board’s persistent refusal to publicly address a controversial “high stakes testing” requirement that takes effect this school year for high school seniors.
Parents, students, teachers, community advocates, the General Assembly, and just about everybody else with an interest in the education of the state’s children have been engaged in a vigorous public discussion and debate on this issue for the past six months in light of its looming implementation. The only group we know of that has not publicly debated the issue – and refused to do so repeatedly despite numerous public requests – is the Board of Education. Even worse, the board has been willing to repeatedly violate the law to avoid that discussion.
The problems started in June when 17 organizations, eager to have the Board discuss the issue, submitted a formal petition requesting them to reconsider the regulations imposing the testing requirement. Even though they had a thirty-day timeframe to respond under the law, board members ignored the petition. The ACLU sued when they failed to respond.
Then the board announced it was going to hold a private retreat, closed to the public and the media, where experts would provide the board a “briefing” on the high stakes testing issue. We rushed into court over that, and at an emergency hearing, a judge ordered that the briefing be held in public.
Finally, more than 45 days after the deadline had passed, the board placed the June petition on its Sept. 9 meeting agenda. Before getting to that item, however, the board went into closed session, purportedly to discuss the ACLU’s underlying lawsuit challenging their previous inaction over the petition. But immediately upon reconvening into open session, Chair Eva Marie Mancuso announced that the board had not only discussed the lawsuit, but had also discussed the petition itself in its closed session and had voted, 6-5, to reject the petition.
Coming just a month after a judge had castigated them over the board’s planned private “retreat,” this latest nose-thumbing at the public’s right to know defies belief. This latest lawsuit, our third, challenges the closed session as an egregious violation of the Open Meetings Act. We are asking the court to declare the vote null and void, impose a $5,000 fine against the Board for willfully violating the law, and require the board to consider the petition on its merits through a public hearing process.
It is rather sad to think what lessons this educational board is teaching the public. When it comes to respecting open government, they certainly flunk the grade.
Steven Brown is executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island.