Members of the Metro Nashville school board have been quietly meeting over lunch for months to discuss everything from their personal lives to a legal opinion challenging the constitutionality of the state’s charter school law.
There’s no posted agenda. No tape recorder running. No cameras streaming video to the web. And almost no public notice that the meeting is happening at all.
“It’s more of a, ‘let’s just let our hair down and talk about whatever’s on our mind’ kind of thing,” said chairwoman Cheryl Mayes. “It’s pretty normal conversation.”
The state’s Sunshine Law prohibits public officials from holding private deliberations on public business.
It was at the board’s most recent lunch meeting — held in the conference room of Director of Schools Jesse Register’s office Friday, Aug. 16 — where Register shared an opinion from a Washington D.C. lawyer outlining three legal avenues the district can use to fight a state-level charter school authorizer law, which narrowly failed in the legislature last year.
The opinion (see PDF file below) suggests the district could exercise the Tennessee Constitution’s equal protection guarantee, question the increased cost of charter schools under Charter Schools Act of 2002, and challenge whether a targeted authorizer law opens the state up for racial discrimination.
“The board hadn’t decided to take any action. We hadn’t deliberated on it. What we asked for was a legal opinion, and we got that now,” said Register.
Members decided in executive session at the lunch meeting to share that opinion with the Coalition of Large School Systems, which is also opposed to a statewide charter school authorizer, according to school board member Amy Frogge. There was no public notice of that executive session in the board packet or on the school board’s calendar on the website.
Public notice of the meeting was missing from the school board’s calendar landing page on the MNPS website, although district officials point to notice of the meeting appearing on page 65 of a 67 page board packet, although the mention lacks a location for the luncheon.
“It’s part of the agenda, it’s publicly posted. I feel pretty confident that we’re in conformity to the open meetings law,” said Meredith Libbey, a district spokeswoman. “They don’t ever take action. It’s more of a conversation.”
Members said they thought the district had given public notice of the lunch meeting, which they find helpful for touching base with what’s going on in the district.
“If I have a personal issue in my district, that’s a good time for me to grab Dr. Register and just share that information, which I did,” said Jill Speering, a school board member from Madison, who also thought notice of the meetings was shared with the public. “I think it was more or less opportunities for people to talk about issues in our own districts.”
Notice of two previous lunch meetings in May and June appear publicly on school board’s calendar, but do not mention a place for the meeting.
Attempts to reach Open Records Counsel Elisha Hodge — the state’s open records counsel — or Director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government Kent Flanagan for comment late Friday were unsuccessful.
Register said the intent is for the meetings to be publicly posted and added, “I’m going to look at more formal listing of this.”