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School board secrecy questioned

Experts say discussion should not have happened in closed session.

January 19, 2011|By Andrew Shortall, andrew.shortall@latimes.com

The La Cañada Unified School District Governing Board very likely violated the state's open-meeting law on Jan. 11 by discussing the district's teacher-evaluation process behind closed doors rather than in public, according to two of the state's leading experts on the Ralph M. Brown Act.

The Brown act, passed by the state legislature in 1953, guarantees the public's right to attend and participate in meetings of all legislative bodies in the state. It was enacted in response to local-government bodies who were seen as avoiding public scrutiny and input by holding secret deliberative and decision-making sessions.

Supt. James Stratton maintained the board was within its rights to discuss in secret how the district audits teacher evaluation files under Brown Act exemptions that pertain to the presence of legal counsel and discussion of personnel issues.

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Howard Friedman, the attorney for LCUSD, said he was approached by the Governing Board and told that they wanted a discussion on auditing teacher files in closed session. He did not attend the meeting in person but was present via a conference call, he said.

To Friedman's understanding, there were two Brown Act provisions that allowed the district to hold the discussion in private. It was justified since LCUSD was in the middle of labor negotiations with the La Cañada Teacher's Association and specific individuals were named during the meeting, he said.

But other legal experts say it's very unlikely that the scope of the board's discussion actually met the requirements for those exemptions.

"The Brown Act does not authorize a closed session for a school board to discuss its ability to access and audit teacher files or the evaluation process — under any rationale," said attorney Terry Francke, founder of the Carmichael-based nonprofit public advocacy group Californians Aware. "This board badly needs competent instruction on the Brown Act."

Judy Alexander, special counsel for access litigation with the California First Amendment Coalition, said the Brown Act's exemption for personnel issues applies only to discussion of a specific employee's record or qualification.

"Policy issues should be discussed in open session. To discuss a general policy issue in closed session? No. Sorry. Doesn't fly," Alexander said. "I don't think any of those reasons are a proper excuse for discussing policy on auditing teacher files in closed session."

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