Nonpublic meeting records released

NASHUA – In response to a Right-to-Know request for minutes of 10 unscheduled nonpublic sessions since January, the Board of Education has unsealed the records of seven of those sessions.

The minutes are minute.

Instead of the type of detailed records the board keeps for its open meetings, the records for these sessions give one- or two-sentence summaries. All of the minutes were created from notes, and not actual tapes of the meetings.

With one exception, the nonpublic sessions were not taped, and the only records that exist are administrators’ notes.

In the future, the board will tape its nonpublic sessions, said Kim Shaw, the board’s president.

“We needed to correct that the minutes weren’t really being done,” Shaw said. “This was a good-faith effort to get these done from notes.”

For a nonpublic session held May 24, this is what the board released as its minutes: “The Board of Education discussed how individual school administrators responded to an individual/parental/student concern.” That session lasted nine minutes.

The minutes of a March 29 meeting say: “The Board of Education reviewed the list of teachers being renominated for the 2004-05 school year.” That session lasted an hour and 20 minutes, and a portion of it remains sealed.

On June 28, when the board voted 7-2 against making Mike Fitzpatrick the boys varsity basketball coach at Nashua High School North, the minutes read as follows:

“The Board of Education discussed two of the three candidates for the varsity boys basketball coach at Nashua High School North. Although Mike Fitzpatrick was discussed briefly, the majority of the discussion revolved around John Connolly. The Board of Education also reviewed the actions of individual administrators regarding the nomination.”

That session lasted 30 minutes. The board approved Fitzpatrick at a later meeting.

There is no record in any of the minutes of what was said and who said it.

Telegraph Editor David Solomon questioned whether the information released by the school board met the legal definition of minutes.

In a lawsuit the newspaper filed two years ago against the Litchfield School Board, a judge ruled what was kept as minutes by that board was “insufficiently informative” and did not comply with the law.

“We learned in the case against the Litchfield School Board the requirement that boards keep minutes of executive sessions means they keep meaningful minutes,” Solomon said. “Just saying they met to discuss a topic doesn’t constitute minutes.”

Even the board’s lawyer, Steve Bennett, told board members Monday night that minutes should reasonably reflect what happened at a meeting.

“You should be able to provide the public with the topics discussed and the positions that various members took,” he said.

Shaw conceded the board’s minutes of nonpublic sessions were lacking, and she promised improvement.

“I don’t think we were doing this correctly in the past and we want to change it, and we’ve already started changing it,” Shaw said. “I don’t know how we can change anything besides doing them better than we did them before.”

Shaw said she expects the board to also rethink the way it seals nonpublic minutes “for as long as the board deems necessary.” Perhaps a more regular review would be better, she said.

“It might be cumbersome, but that way the citizens and The Telegraph are more comfortable with what’s going on,” Shaw said. “And at least it would lend itself to the perception that there’s greater transparency.”

Shaw hopes that releasing the minutes it did shows the board is not conducting policy debate behind closed doors. She hopes it also sends a signal that the board will try to strike a reasonable balance “between the Right-to-Know Law and people’s livelihoods and reputations.”

Shaw said this has been a good exercise for the board to go through. Now board members will be more in tune with the letter of the law. “I think it’s been a pretty positive experience overall,” she said. “It’s not always pleasant to feel like you’re under scrutiny, but it does lead to growth for the organization and the individuals involved.”