Parents, students, and others flooded a Pickens County Board of Education meeting on Monday, Oct. 14, 2019, in Jasper, about transgender students’ use of school bathrooms. The next day, the board discussed the issue in an executive session. CURTIS COMPTON/CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

Why public boards don’t do everything in public

Residents in Pickens County assembled Monday to give the superintendent and board of education an earful after an unexpected plan to let transgender students use the bathroom of their choice was announced. Many people were miffed that there was no public discussion beforehand.

They didn’t understand why a decision that they felt greatly affected their children was made “behind closed doors.” And many were also upset about a further plan to modify restrooms to make them all single-stall and gender-neutral.

“My taxes have gone up $800 this year,” said one woman during her time at the microphone. “I’d rather pay the lawsuit than spend one dime to buckle under pressure for something I don’t believe in.”

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A tight-knit community like Pickens County is probably used to everyone knowing about pretty much everything, but government doesn’t always work that way, said Melvin Johnson, a former DeKalb County school board member.

He spent six years on the school board that included four years as chairman.

“Boards don’t decide to discuss issues in executive session because they are trying to hide something from the public,” he said. “It’s really about timing. Everything comes to light eventually, but often the process of getting there has components that must be kept private for a period of time.”

For example, if a school board was looking to buy land to build a new facility, that information would need to be kept under wraps so landowners wouldn’t inflate the asking price in advance.

“That’s probably the most logical reason why all information can’t be public information,” said Johnson. “But school boards have the added responsibility of student privacy and keeping certain information confidential.”

Student discipline is a major issue that school boards must deal with. Expulsions require a vote of the board. That’s where it can get a little tricky.

Boards must vote in public sessions. However, they often discuss personnel matters and student matters in executive session and then vote on them later.

Many school board agendas include items where students are identified by a code so their right to privacy won’t be violated.

The reason for closed meetings that may be hardest for the public to grasp is legal issues.

Those can run the gamut, and in the case of Pickens County the school board had been threatened with lawsuits from advocates for transgender students and from parents who were against allowing children born one sex to use the restroom assigned to the other sex.

The Georgia Code, which applies to all state boards, protects the attorney-client privilege. A meeting where most business is open to the public may be closed to consult and meet with legal counsel pertaining to pending or potential litigation, settlement, claims, administrative proceedings, or other judicial actions brought or to be brought by or against the agency or any officer or employee, or litigation in which the agency or any officer or employee may be directly involved.

If residents have concerns, Johnson suggested they ask board members if there can be parts of the issue discussed in open session.

“Our job is to serve the public and we never forget that we serve at their pleasure.”

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