AG: DeKalb Schools’ mini-sessions conflict with Open Meetings Act

The DeKalb County School District has come under fire for holding school board “mini-sessions,” informational meetings with just a few members, arranged to avoid having a quorum.

The intent appears to be to hide meetings that should be open to the public, the state attorney general’s office wrote.

Interim Chief Operations Officer Dan Drake wrote to board members recently about three possible 90-minute meetings scheduled for March 19 and 20, saying no more than three board members could be in any one session “to avoid a quorum.”

Board member Stan Jester said the meetings, to discuss plans to shift education special purpose local option sales tax funds, did not sit right with him, so he took the matter to the state's Attorney General.

“If they open them up to the public, that would at least almost be legal,” Jester said. “I’m going to say these meetings are open to the public and that the public should attend.”

The meetings, according to Drake’s email to the board, are March 19 at 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. and March 20 at 1:30 p.m.

District officials said the mini-sessions scheduled for next week will go on as planned. The practice will continue "so long as board members find them to be of benefit."

From left, DeKalb County Board of Education Vice Chair Marshall Orson, Chairman Michael Erwin and DeKalb County School District Superintendent Steve Green listen during a recent board meeting. AJC FILE PHOTO
From left, DeKalb County Board of Education Vice Chair Marshall Orson, Chairman Michael Erwin and DeKalb County School District Superintendent Steve Green listen during a recent board meeting. AJC FILE PHOTO

Mini-sessions are a long-standing DeKalb County School District practice that officials have said are used to share preliminary information with board members ahead of a public discussion with the full board.

Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Colangelo said in a letter sent to the district’s attorney, Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, that mini-sessions give the appearance of the district trying to hide meetings that should be open to the public according to the state’s Open Meetings Act.

“The intent of the General Assembly in passing the Act is to provide strict requirements ensuring that the public’s business is conducted in an open and accessible manner,” Colangelo said. “Not only does such a requirement permit the people to know what actions their public servants are undertaking, but it also fosters public confidence in their leaders and the decisions that they make.

“The failure to serve those underlying purposes leads to mistrust and controversy.”

Colangelo added that while the act excludes some meetings, exemptions should not apply when the purpose of the gathering is to evade or avoid the requirements for conducting a meeting.

“It is hard not to draw a conclusion that the sole purpose of the mini-sessions was intended to avoid compliance with the Act and holding these meetings in the open,” she said. “If this is so, then no exception would apply in this case.”

District officials say the meetings are not required and are simply opportunities for board members to receive information from staff.

“The DeKalb County School District administration makes itself available to board members to address various topics and receive information,” district officials said. “It does so routinely, in both formal and informal fashion, such as email requests for information from Board members and conversations. Mini-sessions are one example. If any action is ever needed, all such action is requested, fully discussed, and acted upon by the Board in a properly noticed meeting that is open to the public and fully transparent.”

Legalities aside, Jester said he will attend one of the meetings, should they continue as planned.

"The only way I can represent my constituency is to attend these meetings," he said. "Otherwise, their voice is not heard."

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