Editorial / How can school board justify closed session on text issue?
Any time members of a town board want to go behind closed doors to discuss the public's business, the public should pay close attention.
And it's time to pay close attention to the Fairfield Board of Education.
The board remains mired in a controversy involving the use this school year of a new Algebra 1 textbook, and the state Board of Education later this month will conduct an inquiry into whether the Fairfield board violated state law in using it.
Some parents objected mightily to the text and to accompanying teaching methods that put students in groups and challenged them to figure out problems themselves. Parents said their eighth- and ninth-graders suddenly were struggling with math and were highly frustrated.
A group of parents filed a complaint with state education officials claiming the local board violated state law because it never voted to adopt the book. School officials have maintained a vote of the board was not required because the book was being used in a pilot program.
On one level, the issue is moot. The school year will end in a few of days, and the school board has decided not to use the text again. But parents who asked for the inquiry are not letting go, saying the matter raises questions about checks and balances between the board and the school administration that put the textbook in use.
Just because the school board is under fire -- one board member conceded the board hadn't been paying attention on this issue-- should it be able to go behind closed doors to talk about it?
At a board meeting last week, several members wanted to go into private session. A motion to do so was withdrawn after Chairman Philip Dwyer cut off discussion and said it would be continued in a closed session later.
But what does the board want to talk about privately? On what grounds it might try to lock out the public is unclear.
The state's Freedom of Information law sets clear limits on when public boards can go into closed session. They can close the doors:
To discuss strategy and negotiations regarding claims or litigation.
The textbook issue involves no monetary claims and no litigation. An administrative inquiry is pending, but the board is not being sued.
To discuss security matters.
This is not a security or safety issue.
To discuss a lease or real estate acquisition if public discussion might increase the price.
That doesn't apply here.
To hold a discussion that would result in disclosure of a public record exempted from disclosure requirements for public records.
This seems very unlikely.
To discuss the performance or evaluation of a specific employee, unless the employee asks that the discussion be open to the public.
That may be plausible. But discussion would have to deal with the performance of a specific individual or individuals, whether School Superintendent David Title -- Fairfield's highest-paid public employee at nearly $284,000 a year -- or other administrators involved in adopting the textbook.
Any vote stemming from closed discussion would have to be taken in public session.
Some board members have openly said the board made mistakes; two said last week they didn't think the administration was taking the state inquiry seriously and that board members haven't been kept in the loop on the complaint.
That's very troubling.
One board member said continued criticism of the board "feels like a witch hunt" and called it "inappropriate."
But the public has a right to hold public employees and public officials accountable for their actions and inactions. That is always appropriate.
And so is discussing the public's business in the light of day, not behind closed doors.