Turlock school board finds way to defeat intent of state’s open government law

The editor of the Turlock Journal says the local school board did all the right things in listing the agenda in advance, making the meeting accessible to all and allowing ample time for public comment but still managed to trash the Brown Act, California’s open meeting law, by deciding the crucial issues of building renovations and layoffs at the end of the session after most of the crowd left the meeting. -db

Turlock Journal
March 6, 2010
By Kristina Hacker

I remember very clearly the first time I discovered that it’s all too easy to skate around the rules to get what you want. My third grade teacher, Mrs. Mills, had assigned the class 20 math problems to do as homework.

As numbers and I haven’t always gotten along, I decided to start on my math problems early. While struggling to remember the rules about fractions, my classmate turned to me and said, “You know, the answers are in the back of the book.”

A quick turn of the pages revealed the truth in my friend’s statement and suddenly my math troubles were history. I whipped through my homework, copying down the answers number for number. Wow, I thought at the time, this is great! My euphoria lasted until my first math test.

After failing miserably and having to explain to my parents and teacher why my homework was done perfectly but I couldn’t answer one test question correctly, I gave up taking the easy road and earned every homework grade the hard way.

What I did in third grade wasn’t cheating. The teacher knew the answers were in the back of the book. The answers were supposed to be a teaching tool. If your answer didn’t match the book’s then the thing to do was go back and rework the problem until it did match.

In the grown-up world there are many ways to take the easy path or to follow the letter of a law, but not the spirit of it. For example, the Turlock Unified School District Board of Trustees were in complete compliance with the Ralph M. Brown Act at their Tuesday night meeting. They posted a public agenda at least 24 hours in advance. They made sure the meeting was accessible to any community members who wanted to attend and allowed ample time for public comments.

However, I have to wonder if the district administration purposely put two controversial items — Debely stadium renovations and teacher layoffs — late on their agenda. While school employees and other members of the public were able to voice their opinions about these two items during the public comment section, which is the second item on the agenda, by the time the board of trustees began their discussion of the Debely renovations, it was 10 p.m. And it wasn’t until midnight that the board voted on laying off 75 teachers.

The standing-room-only-crowd that filled the Turlock High Auditorium at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday dwindled down to under a dozen community members — which included media representatives — by the time the controversial discussions began. If five and a half hour school board meetings aren’t already listed as a means of torture, they should be.

Other public bodies, including the Turlock City Council, have been known to move an agenda item up when a large group of people have obviously come to a meeting just to hear discussion on one topic. It allows the public to be present during critical items, without having to endure hours upon hours of boring elected body housekeeping work. The board of trustees could have decided to hold a special meeting just to discuss Joe Debely renovations and layoffs. By waiting until the wee hours of the night to discuss these items, the school district was almost guaranteed a small and subdued crowd.

Making it hard on the public to hear discussion on issues of importance is not illegal. Neither is it cheating to cram six hours of school board work into one weeknight.

But it’s not right either.

Copyright 2009 The Turlock Journal, CA