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4 sue State Board of Education about open-meetings law

FWCS board member Hollingsworth a plaintiff

INDIANAPOLIS – Four Hoosiers – including a Fort Wayne Community Schools board member – filed suit Wednesday about an alleged Open Door violation by the Indiana State Board of Education.

The group narrowly lost a ruling on the issue by the Indiana Public Access Counselor, and now is taking the case to a judge. FWCS member Julie Hollingsworth is one of the plaintiffs.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz initially filed the same case but it was dismissed on a legal technicality and a court did not rule on the merits.

The suit revolves around a letter the State Board of Education sent in October asking legislative leaders to intervene in a dispute about issuing A-F school accountability grades.

The letter was not discussed in an open meeting of the board. It was drafted by staff of the administratively created Center for Education and Career Innovation, and emailed around.

All members of the board – except Ritz – signed on. She was not included in the email chain, although she is chair of the panel.

The lawsuit alleges the letter constituted “official action” by the board and was done outside of an open meeting with notice to the public.

“The aforementioned actions, as well as other actions that may subsequently come to light through discovery, violated both the letter and the spirit of the (Open Door Law),” the suit said.

Public Access Counselor Luke Britt warned the board and other public agencies last week in his ruling against using email exchanges to take action.

He said he couldn’t definitively find it was a violation, but “final decisions are meant to be open and transparent.”

“For all intents and purposes, this is a meeting of the minds, which just so happened to take place in cyberspace as opposed to a brick-and-mortar building,” Britt said.

“In this instance the email exchange could be interpreted as a ratification of a final decision by vote. I do not think it rises to that level but the perception of the public is of significant importance.”

Britt spoke to the board Wednesday before the new suit was filed and told them again their actions were “very close” to crossing the line.

nkelly@jg.net

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