Tampa Bay Times by Dan Dewitt
March 29, 2017
When the Hernando County School Board gathered last week for a retreat at a gated community, it was required by state law to notify the public of the event, said Barbara Petersen, president of the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation.
To double-check her interpretation, Petersen said, she consulted with Pat Gleason, special counsel for open government at the Florida Attorney General’s Office, “and she confirmed that there are no exceptions for these retreats or team-building exercises.”
School Board attorney Dennis Alfonso said the failure to run a legal advertisement notifying the public of the gathering was an oversight caused partly by its timing, shortly after the week of spring break. Alfonso said he would “remediate” the lapse by summarizing the discussion of the retreat at an upcoming board workshop.
Petersen said that the law calls this approach a “cure” and that it could restore the validity of any action taken. (None was.)
“But it does not cure the violation,” she said.
The unnoticed workshop came after a couple of other recent decisions that raise questions about the district’s promises of transparency: superintendent Lori Romano’s moves to end the contract with a private dropout prevention program, Catapult Academy, and institute a new adult high school — both without School Board approval or public discussion.
Though Alfonso okayed both decisions, a Tallahassee attorney with 45 years of experience in education law, Ron Meyer, interpreted state law as “probably” requiring these actions be approved by the board, and board member Susan Duval complained about the failure to notify the board about the Catapult termination at last week’s board workshop.
“It would be nice to know ahead of time,” Duval said.
Last week’s retreat was the second of four that were planned as a replacement for training offered through the Florida School Boards Association’s Master Board Program.
Hernando board members attended the association’s full, 22-hour, $4,700 program after the election of three new members in 2014. Because the new School Board contains only one recently elected member, Linda Prescott, the association offered Hernando a seven-hour refresher course for all members and Romano for $1,800, said Tina Pinkoson, who runs the program for the association.
Romano said the association did not make that offer until recently, well after the retreats had been scheduled. And she said the board scheduled the retreats, including a two-day gathering in January, partly because members requested district-based training.
Regardless, the series of retreats was more extensive than any of the association’s offerings and, though touted as a cheaper alternative, came at considerable expense.
“I really don’t think they got anywhere near a Sunshine Law violation in substance,” Alfonso said.
The attorney general’s Government-in-the-Sunshine Manual, however, states that “the Sunshine Law is … applicable to all functions of covered boards and commissions, whether formal or informal, which relate to the affairs and duties of the board or commission.”
The district raised other issues by holding the retreat in a gated community, in a small meeting room without accommodation for the public, Petersen said. Though Silverthorn did allow a Times reporter through the gate to attend, she said, “I believe that the law would prohibit (the board) from meeting in a gated community unless the gate is up and members of the public are free to come and go.”
And, she said, district staffers “have to take minutes.”
Romano said the board would re-create the meeting from flip charts completed during the training and notes taken during the session.
An indication that the failure to provide notice was an error, she said, was the district’s previous notifications for all training sessions, including the one in January.
But the day before last week’s retreat — when asked about a previous pledge to inform a Times reporter of all retreats — district spokeswoman Karen Jordan said “that’s not a noticed meeting.” [READ MORE]