Columns » Max Brantley

Still waters at LRSD

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From outward appearances, the Little Rock School District has settled into something resembling normalcy following a charged school election in September that left the balance of power in the hands of a four-member black majority.

Appearances can deceive.

In the last few days, I've been brought into the loop on some of the busy e-mail by which a great deal of School Board business — or at least discussions leading up to the formal conduct of business — is carried out.

A board member will send a request to interim Superintendent Linda Watson and copy all members of the School Board. Watson will respond, with copies to all members. A board member might ask a question or raise an objection about the response and similarly copy all members.

What you have here, it's pretty clear to me, is an informal digital meeting of the School Board on various topics. I've seen threads on the procedure for considering items for action at board meetings and, more notably, communication about an administrative committee that is considering settlements of pending lawsuits and requests for pay changes. The administration says the review committee is meeting as it always has. Members of the School Board minority have some questions about that and whether the superintendent can act on pay issues without coming to the board first.

In short, there's an ongoing tugging match over board and administrative prerogatives. So, the district struggle continues. I hope some of the big issues can be resolved by consensus — particularly the selection process for a permanent superintendent and the building of sufficient classroom space in western Little Rock to meet demand.

But in the meanwhile, I think it's time to do some thinking about how the public's business is being conducted in the computer age. I doubt that the Little Rock School Board is alone in group communication such as that I've described. I'm sure most diligent public officials know that you can't come to an official decision this way — out of view of the public, without an announced meeting and vote. The Arkansas Supreme Court made that very clear in a Fort Smith case.

But that doesn't mean that the particulars aren't being hashed out and debated by the entire governing body of a public agency preparatory to a pro forma public vote. In such a process, the public is excluded from deliberations.

Dean Elliott, a former state legislator who's been active in the Academics Plus Charter School in Maumelle, established a policy years ago to send to news reporters the same e-mails he sent to the school board as a group. I asked last week for similar treatment by the Little Rock School Board on group-addressed e-mails. Clearly these e-mails are public information, discoverable under the Freedom of Information Act. Why not get them in real time?

I'm thinking about sending a similar request to Little Rock and North Little Rock city governments, too. When public officials are talking back and forth about public business — even if it's by computer and not in person — the public should know what they are talking about.

But I concede it's a knotty and unexpected problem. E-mail didn't exist in any practical form when most of the Freedom of Information Act was adopted. We have to hope that, if it changes with the times, it's not for the worse.

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