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Aberdeen School Board Shuts Public Out of Discussion of Emergency Plans

The Aberdeen School Board is holding a special meeting Friday, March 20, at noon at district headquarters on Third Street South. The board will be discussing the district’s emergency response plan, but they don’t want us to know what they discuss. The board plans to hold that discussion in executive session.

Can they do that? At a time when everyone is wondering just how our schools plan to handle the coronavirus cancellations—are these snow days or early summer? will teachers send out worksheet packets and online lessons, or is it up to us parents to come up with our own combos of Khan Academy videos, great books, and chores? are we holding graduation? will the school pack and distribute free and reduced lunches?—is it really responsible for the board to shut the door and not let us observe, much less participate in, this vital decision-making process?

The board agenda tags its executive session item with a statutory reference to SDCL 1-27-1.5(17). That statute lists the records that we exempt from public inspection and copying. Item 17 is “Any emergency or disaster response plans or protocols, safety or security audits or reviews, or lists of emergency or disaster response personnel or material; any location or listing of weapons or ammunition; nuclear, chemical, or biological agents; or other military or law enforcement equipment or personnel;”.

Item 17 is one of the two public records exceptions cited in our open meetings law (SDCL 1-25-2) as an excuse for closing the doors to the public.

It’s possible that the board is holding a special meeting to discuss something other than coronavirus response plans. But if Friday’s topic is the current public health crisis and our public schools’ response, this closed session sounds like another instance of a public body mistaking “may” for “shall”. Statute does not require that discussions of pandemic response plans be kept secret. And knowing the details of how the school plans to meet its obligations to students and the community in the midst of covid-19 doesn’t offer a lot of handholds for terrorists to make trouble. Quite the contrary: knowing what our elected leaders are discussing and being able to contribute to that discussion (if not in the meeting itself, then in commentary on the published agenda and conversation with board members prior to the meeting) might make members of the public feel more secure and confident.

The Aberdeen School Board is not closing the entire meeting. They are still holding the statutorily mandated public comment period, and they are still bound to come out of executive session to take any official action on whatever comes from their secret discussion.

All public agencies should note that public health concerns are not among the legal excuses for closing a meeting to the public. It may not be wise for spectators to crowd the meeting room—heck, with seven members, the superintendent, and a reporter at the meeting, community members wishing to address the board may have to line up outside at the Purel dispenser and come in one at a time—but school boards, city councils, and other elected bodies still have an obligation to make sure anyone who wants to watch a public meeting can do so.

One Comment

  1. Debbo 2020-03-19

    I’m surprised they had the meeting in person.

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