EVERETT — The Everett School District reacted swiftly last week to an accusation by school board member Jessica Olson that it has been breaking the state’s open-meetings law.
State law requires nearly all meetings for school boards and other government bodies to occur in open session. Exceptions to the rule are few.
Olson asserts that the school board violated the state Open Public Meetings law on June 22, when it went behind closed doors to listen to a staff presentation about high school student test scores.
After being challenged by The Herald on the legality of reviewing test scores outside of public view, the district released the preliminary results from the state exams. Officials also said they are scheduling a meeting with the state Attorney General’s Office to get advice on its closed-door meeting practices.
During the June 22 session, the board reviewed preliminary student test scores for the district. It justified going behind closed doors by connecting the test results to a performance review of Superintendent Gary Cohn. The board was told to keep the numbers confidential, Olson said.
The district on Friday provided the newspaper with a PowerPoint presentation regarding the test scores. Officials said it was the same one provided earlier behind closed doors to the school board. The test results are preliminary, and the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction doesn’t expect to release final results until late August or early September.
Olson said the district’s response was engaging in damage control, but also taking a step in the right direction. She has wanted the board to get training in open-government issues for months, she said.
“It pleases me if they’re really going to do that,” she said.
Olson first publicly raised her concerns regarding the school board’s meeting practices while at a June 27 forum hosted by the Coalition for Open Government in Edmonds.
Cohn said he’s convinced the district did nothing wrong by discussing the test data during the closed-door meeting. The test is new this year, replacing the WASL. Charts the district provided seem to show lower passing rates districtwide for reading and math for high school students.
“This is my first year,” Cohn said. “These are the first set of indicators of how we’re doing, and I wanted the board members to be able to talk with me about how I’m doing.”
Olson was elected in November on a campaign for open government.
During her race against incumbent Karen Madsen, Olson said the school district and school board had taken too many actions “behind a cloak of secrecy.”
She criticized the district for secretly video recording a teacher in the classroom, piling up more than $200,000 in lawyer fees related to legal battles over student newspapers and hiring Cohn without giving taxpayers and the community a chance to meet or comment on the finalists whose salary they would be paying.
The performance review of a public employee such as Cohn can happen behind closed doors, but typically that would be limited to salary issues or disciplinary action, according to the state Attorney General’s Office.
Tim Ford, the state attorney general’s open-government ombudsman, said he doesn’t know if what the school board did was right or wrong. Still, he spoke to Olson about her concerns. Ford said he didn’t know of any reason why preliminary test scores couldn’t be discussed during a public meeting.
“I think she has good questions,” Ford said.
The school board has invited Ford to attend one of its fall meetings, which he said he intends to do.
Toby Nixon is president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, a Seattle-based advocacy group. He said district officials appear to have deliberately bent the law.
“They could have a private discussion about disappointing results in the state testing and get their story straight amongst themselves before the information became public,” he said. “That is not the way a public body is supposed to operate.”
Olson said Cohn’s performance wasn’t brought up during the closed-door meeting.
“They should definitely have had that meeting in public view, to discuss those scores,” she said.
School Board President Ed Petersen said student achievement is related to the superintendent’s performance, so the test results were relevant to the discussion.
“I worry that a conservative definition of the performance review will tie the hands of a board that is trying faithfully to do good work,” Petersen said.
Board Vice President Kristie Dutton also said no wrongdoing occurred.
“We’ve been to multiple trainings at the state and national level regarding this topic and regarding meeting management,” she said. “We have a lot of experience doing this.”
Nonetheless, the board needs to show due diligence and meet with Ford following Olson’s accusations, Petersen said.
“We’re always interested in best practices, so why not go to the best person in the state?” Petersen said.
Andy Rathbun: 425-339-3455, firstname.lastname@example.org.