TAVARES – The State Attorney’s Office contacted the attorney for the Lake County School Board on March 7 after questions arose about whether the board is obeying the Sunshine Law.
Ric Ridgway, chief assistant state attorney for the Fifth Judicial Circuit, would not confirm receiving a complaint about a possible violation of Florida’s open meetings law but did say they tried to contact board attorney Steven Johnson.
“We are aware of the situation and we are talking to the School Board’s Attorney,” Ridgway said.
He stopped short of calling the inquiry an investigation.
“At this point, we have not issued subpoenas,” he said.
Since December, experts on Florida’s Sunshine Law questioned several moves made by the board. The Sunshine Law requires most government proceedings to be open to the public.
Since last year, members of the School Board have been holding one-on-one closed-door meetings with district administrators to prepare for the following week's board meetings. The private sessions make it easier for board members to ask questions about the issues on the agenda, board members say. The meetings fell on Thursday’s in quick succession of one another. Courts have ruled against similar meetings in the past.
Then on Feb. 26, the board held a closed-door meeting to discuss school security. But the law only allows for private discussions when talking about specific, covert security details, including placement of security cameras. By the admission of several board members, the discussions also included general security approaches or ideas for arming school teachers and administrators.
“As a matter of good policy, it seems like the arming of school employees is one of the most important issues facing school districts today, and the public has a legitimate interest in knowing where their elected school board members come down on that issue,” said Frank D. LoMonte, director of the University of Florida’s Brechner Center for Freedom of Information.
Barbara Petersen, president of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation, agreed.
“As a parent, as a teacher, as a student, I want to know what my school board is doing. If my school board is talking about it, I want to know what they are saying. In my opinion, this is an issue of grave public concern and they should be holding those discussions in public.”
Also in January, the board decided to implement an employee hotline to report fraud and other issues, but the board was concerned that unfounded, anonymous complaints would go into employees’ files as required by public records law. At the School Board attorney’s suggestion, the board agreed to instead have a master file for all unfounded, anonymous complaints. Experts have panned the idea as a way to skirt the law.