Hartford Schools Banning Media from Public Meetings

Last week before Superintendent Kishimoto, Principal Sullivan, and the parents and community at Burns Latino Studies Academy had a meeting about the personnel changes, some members of the media received a message stating they would not be permitted inside. This ban was unevenly enforced, as some media were turned away and others not, despite being required to sign in. I, for one, openly took notes and asked questions after parents had a chance to do so themselves.

This event was advertised publicly in the Frog Hollow is Home Facebook group, inviting members of the community to attend. There was nothing in this notice indicating the possibility that this meeting could be closed to some individuals.

On February 13th, the Hartford Public Schools again attempted to ban the media from what was supposed to be a public event.

The School Governance Council of Classical Magnet School, along with students, their parents, and community members met tonight with Kishimoto to discuss the transfer of Sullivan out of their school.

SGC meetings are open and subject to provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. This section of FOIA states that a “meeting” does not mean:

Any meeting of a personnel search committee for executive level employment candidates; any chance meeting, or a social meeting neither planned nor intended for the purpose of discussing matters relating to official business; strategy or negotiations with respect to collective bargaining; a caucus of members of a single political party notwithstanding that such members also constitute a quorum of a public agency; an administrative or staff meeting of a single-member public agency; and communication limited to notice of meetings of any public agency or the agendas thereof.

It further explains that a “personnel search committee” is “a body appointed by a public agency, whose sole purpose is to recommend to the appointing agency a candidate or candidates for an executive-level employment position.”

An SGC has more than one purpose.

The Connecticut State Department of Education describes the role and responsibilities of the SGC as follows:

Additionally, FOIA states:

No registration or other requirements may be imposed on a member of the public seeking attendance at a public meeting.
The public, as well as the news media, may photograph, record or broadcast meetings, subject to prior reasonable rules regarding non-interference with the conduct of the meeting.

Kishimoto said she did not want the media present because it would make parents too afraid to ask questions, but according to FOIA, the news media may be present so long as they do not interfere with the meeting.

The news media have not been banned from all meetings at which parents may need to ask questions.

Additionally, the parents of Hartford schoolchildren, the ones who attend such meetings, are hardly of the meek and mild variety, at least when it comes to their children. If by chance they would be intimidated by the presence of news media, it is logical that they would be equally intimidated by administrators who don suits and who are perceived by some parents as putting a distance between themselves and the community.

Regardless, a School Governance Council is formed not just by parents and school staff, but also by members of the community.

These meetings were not designed for discussing concerns about individual students, so this was not a FERPA issue. Nor did these meetings occur during the school day when having the news media present might create a distraction for the youth.

When asked how the media could be banned, no suitable response was provided. Courant reporter Vanessa de la Torre was told by Assistant Corporation Counsel Kaufmann that she could get the actual FOI exemption on Tuesday morning, conveniently after the meeting had ended.

Before smartphones, laptops, and tablets, such a ban on news media might have meant something.

Today?

This merely encourages members of the community to demand transparency from public agencies by posting photos, audio, and video of such events and letting the viral nature of social media take over from there. Community members attending tonight’s meeting used Twitter to publicize what was being said in a public building by officials whose salaries are funded through public dollars.

Unless there is a plan to force all meeting attendees to hand over their wireless devices, the Hartford Schools may want to reconsider such bans as they are impossible to enforce and suggest something is being hidden.

So, what needed to be kept under wraps at Classical Magnet School?

For starters, not everyone in the city is joyous about the transfer of Principal Sullivan from there to Burns.

The students of Classical Magnet, as well as their parents are some of these people. Many students and parents spoke out on Monday evening, indicating that a trust had been broken. Some demanded to know how they could trust that Kishimoto would not remove their next principal in a similar fashion. Councilman Kennedy, speaking as a father, said that the decision to remove Sullivan from Classical and place him at Burns was “not made in collaboration.” Even school staff expressed resentment about how they received mere hours of notice about this major shift in personnel.

The lack of transparency with parents, students, and staff seems equal to the lack of transparency with the news media, who to date have not received any press release about the shift in leadership at Classical Magnet School and Burns Latino Studies Academy.

Inquiries to the Hartford Public Schools about the legality of banning the media received no response before the meeting ended on Monday evening.

UPDATE: 15 Feb 2012: Two days after the meeting, HPS admit they erred.