2021 | Bethesda Beat

Montgomery school board justified in not allowing public at meetings, oversight panel says

Meetings expected to be open to public Aug. 24

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The Montgomery County Board of Education has not violated the law in continuing to hold meetings not open to the public, even after capacity restrictions first instated as part of COVID-19 prevention measures were lifted, an oversight board ruled this week.

In March 2020, the school board began meeting virtually as the pandemic worsened. In February 2021, some members began meeting in person, and the full board began meeting in person in June.

Despite meeting in person and allowing some staff members and press in, the board has not allowed the public to observe the meetings in person. Instead, it has opted for livestreams and providing phone numbers through which people can call in and listen to an audio stream.

Jennifer Reesman, a psychologist from Rockville with a rising sixth-grade student, filed a complaint with the Open Meetings Act Compliance Board, which oversees government bodies subject to the law. Maryland’s Open Meetings Act is a law that requires government bodies hold their meetings in public, except in specific circumstances, to ensure their business is “conducted openly and publicly.”

In her complaint, Reesman argued that the public should have been allowed to attend meetings in person when the county eliminated indoor capacity restrictions in June. She said it was not acceptable for the school board to allow members of the press to attend meetings while simultaneously excluding the public.

In its opinion, released Monday, the compliance board wrote that the meetings were “reasonably accessible” to all members of the public, and tuning in virtually was not “deficient in comparison to being physically present in the meeting room.”

In an email to Bethesda Beat on Monday, Reesman wrote that she was “disappointed with the findings” of the compliance board.

“I fear that this opinion, barring commitment from the Board of Education (or the County Council) to truly host an open meeting that is truly open to the public, signals the end of the open meeting and in-person public testimony in this county,” Reesman wrote.

“Elected officials, including our school board and county council, have shown no interest in meeting with their constituents face to face and would rather be able to easily play on their smartphones while listening to pre-recorded public testimony, as our only option for participation and observation.”

She wrote that she’s hopeful the school board “holds firm in its commitment” to opening meetings to the public on Aug. 24.

The compliance board ruled that the school board was justified in maintaining a limited capacity with allocating “limited in-person audience space to the press and providing the rest of the public alternative means of observing the proceedings.”

The compliance board wrote that reporting from journalists who covered the meeting in-person could “inform their audiences” of public business.

“We do not mean to suggest that after-the-fact media reports are a substitute for real-time access to a meeting; that is why a public body must, as the Board did here, offer the general public meaningful alternatives to attending in person,” the opinion said. “But provided those alternatives are readily available, we do not think the Act precludes a public body from reserving limited in-person space for the press, who, unlike an ordinary member of the public, can report to a wide audience what happened at the meeting.”

Reesman argued that local health officials had eliminated indoor capacity restrictions in June, therefore there was not “limited space.”

The compliance board wrote, however, that it declined to “endorse a bright line rule permitting public bodies to limit in-person attendance only when a specific law expressly prohibits large gatherings.”

“The pandemic is ‘a rapidly evolving situation,’ and we do not wish to dissuade public bodies from considering other metrics such as public health guidance that, although lacking the force of penalties, nonetheless informs the question of how to comply with the Act while maintaining public safety,” the opinion said.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com