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Rhode Island Mom Sues School District Over Secret Meetings

August 3, 2022

Closed to the public—parents not welcome.

That’s the message the South Kingstown School Committee sent Rhode Island mom Nicole Solas when she tried to attend a meeting of the school district’s taxpayer-funded Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) Advisory Board before enrolling her daughter in kindergarten. Today, the Goldwater Institute filed a lawsuit in Rhode Island Superior Court to defend Nicole’s rights and hold the school district accountable for conducting public business in secret—in violation of the state’s Open Meetings Act.

Last May, Nicole asked to attend meetings where the South Kingstown BIPOC Advisory Board made policy recommendations that affected the school district’s students, including her daughter. The Board’s weekly meetings were slated to involve discussions about district policies regarding curriculum, hiring, discipline, and accountability, among other practices.

Nicole’s simple request shouldn’t have been an issue. After all, Rhode Island’s Open Meetings Act was enacted to ensure that “public business be performed in an open and public manner and that the citizens be advised of and aware of the performance of public officials and the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy.” Moreover, the law requires that “[e]very meeting of all public bodies shall be open to the public.”

Yet the chairperson of the Board denied Nicole’s request, and School Committee personnel ignored further attempts from Nicole to reach them. But Rhode Island law makes clear that because the Board has “advisory power” over a subject of significant public interest—discussed during regular and recurring meetings that include public officials—and because it receives public funds for these activities, it is a “public body” whose meetings should be open to the public.

This is not the first time that the School Committee has tried to hide its activity from parents. When Nicole previously requested public information about what her daughter would be learning, the Committee evaded large portions of her request, threatened to sue her, and eventually tried to charge her $74,000 to access public information.

It’s not just happening in Rhode Island. In Arizona, the Scottsdale Unified School District tried to silence public comment during school board meetings; in Colorado, four Douglas County School Board members came to an agreement outside of public meetings, and without public comment, to fire the superintendent; and in Kentucky, the Campbell County Board of Education turned away a resident who refused to wear a mask from school board meetings.

The public’s business should be open to the public—especially when it comes to the important work of educating students. That’s why Goldwater is working nationwide to shine a light on what’s happening in public school districts.

Goldwater’s landmark academic transparency law requires public schools to post their learning materials online, and the Institute’s new OpenMyGovernment.org guide empowers parents to file effective public records requests when the government still tries keeping secrets. Moreover, Goldwater’s American Freedom Network of pro bono attorneys stands ready to help parents in every state access the information they’re entitled to.

Nicole’s case will make clear that it is unacceptable for school districts to make decisions about children’s education behind closed doors, without parental consent and involvement.

Kamron Kompani is the Legal Programs Manager at the Goldwater Institute.

 

 

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