Stating that Palo Alto school board members may have violated California's open-meeting law, the Palo Alto Weekly has asked the board to cease the practice of receiving weekly confidential memos from Superintendent Kevin Skelly.
The existence of the practice came to light two weeks ago when a copy of Skelly's April 20, 2012, "Confidential Weekly" to school trustees was turned over to a citizens group by the school district in response to the group's Public Records Act request. The group, We Can Do Better Palo Alto, provided the Weekly with a copy.
In a four-page letter to the Board of Education, Weekly publisher Bill Johnson said it was "clear that the very purpose of this practice has been to exclude the public" and that the April 20 memo, which included Skelly's comments about the high school counseling system at Gunn, "conveys the thinking and potential actions of district administrators on a subject (counseling) on which you are in the midst of formulating policy." In the memo Skelly also invited trustees to discuss this "sensitive" issue with him further if they desired.
California's open-meeting law, known as the Brown Act, prohibits the majority of members of an elected body from using "a series of communications of any kind, directly or through intermediaries, to discuss, deliberate, or take action on any item of business that is within the subject jurisdiction of the legislative body."
Johnson's letter cited the California state Attorney General's Brown Act handbook, which strongly cautions against confidential communications.
"Problems arise when systematic communications begin to occur which involve members of the board acquiring substantive information for an upcoming meeting or engaging in debate, discussion, lobbying or any other aspect of the deliberative process either among themselves or with staff," the handbook says.
"If these communications are permitted to occur in private, a large part of the process by which members reach their decisions may have occurred outside the public eye. Under these circumstances, the public would be able only to witness a shorthand version of the deliberative process, and its ability to monitor and contribute to the decision-making process would be curtailed."
Johnson said Skelly's April 20 memo was an excellent example of what the Attorney General cautioned against, since in the memo Skelly described a specific plan that he and other administrators were exploring regarding the counseling system at Gunn and invited private discussions on the subject.
"This is exactly the kind of process that the Brown Act is designed to prevent: a behind-the-scenes series of private communications among trustees and administrators that develops a game plan (or perhaps even an outcome) for handling a major policy matter scheduled for your upcoming consideration," Johnson wrote.
In addition to directing Skelly to cease writing his "Confidential Weekly" memos, the Weekly's letter asks the school board to receive a briefing on the Brown Act from a qualified attorney, adopt a policy that no communications should occur among more than two board members unless they are made public, and for Skelly to send an e-mail to Gunn parents making clear that the board has not yet made any decisions regarding the high school counseling program, contrary to an e-mail he and Gunn principal Katya Villalobos sent out May 5 that stated the board would not be adopting a specific guidance model for use at Gunn.
A Public Records Act request by the Palo Alto Weekly for all of Skelly's "Confidential Weekly" memoranda since March, 2011 is awaiting response from the district.