Did Appleton Schools Attempt an Open Meetings Workaround?
It appears the Appleton Area School District is attempting to use a policy change to work around a Wisconsin Supreme court ruling that the district violated the state’s open meeting law. The court ruled in June that the state’s open meetings law applied to an Appleton school committee that repeatedly met behind closed doors to review material for a freshman reading class. Justices rejected the school district’s arguments that the material review committee was not a governmental body and therefore its meetings exempt from the open meetings law. But Media Trackers has learned that the Appleton Area School Board recently approved policy changes, deleting portions of existing policy, that appear to have the intended effect of circumventing the court’s ruling:
The selection of educational materials;
however, is the responsibility of is delegated tothe
professionally-trained and certified personnel employed by the school district
system. The responsibilityobligation for coordinating and maintaining qualitative standards in the
selection process rests with the Assessment, Curriculum, and Instruction (ACI) department
administrators who have the duty to make educational materials selections.
Textbook recommendations will be submitted to the Board of Education by the Assessment,
Curriculum, and Instruction (ACI) administrators for review and approval. The Board of
Education, as the governing body of the District,
is legally responsible for allshall approve educational materialstextbooks utilized within the instructional program of the Appleton Area
In Wisconsin, it is the role of the local school board to establish written policies, procedures, and rules for the operation of the schools within the District and to adopt textbooks. The
alsohas the responsibility to provide adequate materials and texts which reflect the
cultural diversity and pluralistic nature of the American society. In addition, the District shall
not discriminate in the selection and evaluation of instructional materials on the basis of sex,
race, color, religion, age, national origin, ancestry, creed, pregnancy, marital or parental
status, sexual orientation, gender identify, gender expression, or physical,
emotional or learning disability in its education program and activities.
Discrimination complaints shall be processed in accordance with established procedures.
The Board of Education, as the governing body of the District, is legally responsible for all shall approve educational materials utilized within the instructional program of the Appleton Area School District. The selection of educational materials; however, is the responsibility of is delegated to the professionally-trained and certified personnel employed by the school district system. The responsibility for coordinating and maintaining qualitative standards in the selection process rests with the Assessment, Curriculum, and Instruction (ACI)department. Textbooks, however, must be formally adopted by the Board of Education since they often constitute the major content of the curriculum.
Tom Kamenick, open government specialist for the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, which represented a district resident in the supreme court case, said “the board appears to be inserting cutesy language that says nothing we’re doing here creates a governmental body unless we say it does.”
“The board is taking out any reference to the board itself having the duty or authority to select educational materials and taking out any mentions that the board is delegating its responsibility to administrators and say it’s the administrators job to pick materials. And it seems like they’re trying to paint themselves out of the picture,” Kamenick said.
Kamenick said the district could have responded to the supreme court ruling in one of two ways: “They could follow the supreme court ruling or they could wiggle around and find a way to keep them(committees) hidden from the public and it seems obvious which route they’re trying to take here.”
And Kamenick says it’s interesting to know that the Appleton School District is acting on the advice of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards:
“No confirmation yet but it seems likely other districts are getting the exact same advice. Unfortunately, WASB is giving advice on how to avoid open meetings law rather than how to follow it properly. Any school district trying to hold committee meetings in secret is opening itself up to a lawsuit. Attorney General guidance says you don’t get to just write yourself out of the open meetings law. If you create committees they are still subject to the open meetings law.”
Media Trackers reached out to Appleton Area School District Superintendent Judy Baseman for comment Tuesday. She emailed this response Wednesday morning:
In reviewing and redrafting its policy regarding curriculum concerns, the District has sought to clarify the distinction between meetings established by rule or order of the board, and those meetings that are administrative meetings. The District’s revised policy fully supports Wisconsin’s strong public policy favoring open government as required by law. While some advocate that everything within municipal entities such as school districts should be open for public meetings, the Wisconsin Legislature and more recently the Wisconsin Supreme Court recognize that it is not feasible in light of the thousands of administrative meetings that occur every day across the state. The District’s revised policy recognizes that balance.
We asked Kamenick to comment on the district’s response:
The district’s response is trying to create a distinction that doesn’t exist in state law. While not every meeting of governmental employees qualifies as a “governmental body”, when a formal committee is created to do government work, it must meet in public.