UPPER MARLBORO – The Prince George’s County Board of Education will announce at its next meeting it violated the Open Meetings Act after the Open Meetings Compliance Board (OMCB) ruled the Board’s staff failed to provide copies of minutes to a county resident.
Thea Scarato, an activist who opposes cell phone towers, said she was attempting to track the history of the school system’s cell phone tower policy by making open records requests and looking through minutes of meetings by the school board and its subsidiary committees.
However, when Scarato went to the Board office to look at the minutes, she was told by a staff member she needed to speak to the Board’s counsel. Scarato then called the counsel, according to the OMCB’s opinion, who told her the school system was still processing a previous Maryland Public Information Act for copies of the minutes. Scarato said she had only filed the MPIA request because she had called three days before her visit to see the minutes, but was told by staff she had to file a formal MPIA request in writing.
“It shouldn’t be this difficult to get information,” Scarato said. “It’s no wonder people are not getting involved because it’s not easy to be.”
Scarato said she sought the assistance of Craig O’Donnell, an activist and former reporter for the Kent County News who has filed several previous Open Meetings complaints with the OMCB.
In his complaint, O’Donnell said the school board failed to provide him with records upon request, but the OMCB ruled that O’Donnell was using the Open Meetings complaint process to subvert the MPIA process.
“We inform complainant that our authority extends only to Open Meetings Act matters and that we will not address Public Information Act disputes,” the OMCB wrote in its ruling.
O’Donnell also complained that the Board did not meet the OMA’s requirement that at least one employee or officer meeting the law’s training requirement. The (OMCB) ruled in O’Donnell’s favor, and the Board pledged to come into compliance.
“The Board of Education has come into compliance with the Act,” said Sherrie Johnson, spokesperson for Prince George’s County Public Schools. “(Board administrator) Erica Berry has been re-trained as the Board’s designee.”
According to PGCPS, Board members Carolyn Boston, Zabrina Epps, Verjeana Jacobs, Beverly Anderson and Dinora Hernandez have received training from the Maryland Association of Boards of Education (MABE). Three other school system employees also received training in Open Meetings from MABE.
The OMCB also ruled the school board failed to provide open inspection of its minutes during ordinary business hours.
“Those minutes should have been provided to Ms. Scarato when she appeared,” the OMCB wrote in its opinion. “At the same time, it is too bad that no one told her at the outset that if she needed the minutes quickly she should begin by appearing at the office. Unfortunately, by the time she visited the office, the waters had been muddied by complainant’s and her own multiple Public Information Act requests to the school board. Just to add to the confusion, she arrived at the school board’s office on a day in which staff were preparing for a board meeting that night and before staff had found a flash drive on which some minutes had been kept.”
O’Donnell said he was not surprised by the ruling and he thinks all public bodies should make all of their minutes available online. He also said he does not think public information should be so difficult to access.
“You argue with lawyers over minutes but the public is entitled to them, so why are we having this argument?” O’Donnell said. “…It’s annoying to have to be such a stickler about these things.”
Johnson said the Board received the OMCB opinion on March 27 and will announce it violated the OMA at its next meeting on Thursday.
“While the Board was found to be in violation on the official OMA training requirement, the Open Meetings Compliance Board acknowledged on page 5 of their opinion: ‘We note from MABE’s website that MABE’s class is an hour longer than two live courses specified by the Act and is focused on the issues that school boards might encounter. This is not a matter in which a public body’s members have been operating without any training in the Act,’” Johnson said in an email.
Board Chairman Segun Eubanks said he takes time before each meeting to ensure that the agenda and minutes are in compliance with the OMA. Despite the OMCB’s ruling, he said he is glad the Board has met the training requirements.
O’Donnell said he is glad the Board has come into compliance because it means they might improve future situations where people ask to see minutes because he does not want to see people go through the hassle Scarato went through.
Scarato, on the other hand, said she thinks more training needs to be done.
“Someone who is in charge needs to know what they are doing and how to do it,” Scarato said.
Though he encourages all board members to undergo training, he did not say he would make it a requirement for all board members.
“We take our responsibility for transparency very seriously and I always make sure we are well within compliance, Eubanks said.
He promised to continue meeting with Berry and the Board’s counsel to monitor compliance with the law.