Behind Closed Doors

This blog was printed in the November 2015 issue of The Hill Rag.

The Deputy Mayor for Education recently announced the formation of a Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force. According to an 8/19/15 Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) document prepared by the Deputy Mayor for Education’s office, the Task Force is charged with “developing clear and fair recommendations on how to improve the coherence and collaboration across and among public schools to improve effectiveness and efficiency. The task force will focus its efforts on recommending strategies and solutions for priority issues that will have the most impact on improving student outcomes for all public schools throughout the District.”

That’s an important charge when today 56% of the students attend DC public schools, and 44% attend privately managed, publicly funded charter schools, and 1 in 5 of our tax dollars go to support education. At the bottom of the third page of the FAQs document, I notice a curious statement “The Task Force meetings are closed to the public.” The reason given for having closed meetings was that without the public observing the meetings, they would be able to establish a “safe and productive environment for Task Force members to have an open and honest dialogue with each other.” The Office of the DME said public input was going to be critical, and they would share summaries of the discussions with the public, and let the public attend focus groups, fill out an on-line survey, and testify at a public roundtable.

None of that sat too well with Fritz Mulhauser, a Ward 6 resident, who is on the board of directors of the DC Open Government Coalition. Fritz knows a lot about the DC Open Meetings Act which very clearly says “All meetings (including hearings) of any department, agency, board, or commission of the District government, including meetings of the Council of the District of Columbia, at which official action of any kind is taken shall be open to the public. No resolution, rule, act, regulation, or other official action shall be effective unless taken, made, or enacted at such meeting.”

The DC Office of Open Government’s (OOG) mission is “to ensure that government operations at every level are transparent, open to the public and promote civic engagement.” The OOG ensures city-wide compliance with the DC Open Meetings Act. The OOG has an on-line complaint form that can be completed if anyone believes the Open Meetings Act is being violated.

And that’s just what Fritz did. He filled out an on-line complaint form asking that the OOG investigate whether the Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force is a public body subject to the DC Open Meetings Act. On October 7th, Traci Hughes, Director of the OOG issued a binding opinion that determined given the Task Force’s “potential far reaching impact on education policy the only plausible determination” is that the Task Force is a public body under the DC Open Meetings Act, and that its meetings must be held in the public.

Now that it has been decided the Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force meetings must be held in public, I hope all the Task Force members will agree this is the right thing to do. I hope the Task Force members will have open and honest discussions with each other because the issues they will be discussing are critical for the future of public education in DC. For far too long, we’ve had two different sectors managing our public education resources, and it is well past the time when DCPS and the Public Charter School Board should be collaborating and planning for the education of all children in DC. It’s unfortunate that some people wanted to have these discussions in private, but thanks to Fritz Mulhauser who took the time to file the complaint and Traci Hughes who issued a very reasonable opinion the Task Force meetings will now be held in public.

But wait! The story is not over. I happened to check on the DME’s website on October 20th, and noticed the website and the FAQs still said the Task Force meetings would be held in private. I thought surely the DME’s office just hadn’t had enough time to update their website to reflect the OOG’s binding opinion. But I was wrong. At a Capitol Hill Public Schools Parent Organization meeting the evening of October 20th, a representative from the DME’s office said they are in the process of reviewing the opinion, and planned to talk with Traci Hughes. The representative said the DC Open Meetings Act was very vague, and they felt further discussion was needed to determine if the Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force meetings were covered by the Act. So stay tuned. More to come.

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