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Virginia school boards: striking a balance between transparency and order

FILE - Rows of school buses are parked at their terminal, Friday, July 10, 2020.
Keith Srakocic
FILE - Rows of school buses are parked at their terminal, Friday, July 10, 2020.

School boards across Virginia are dealing with sometimes hostile parents and potentially dangerous situations. But, they also have to manage the legal requirements for open meetings.

"Public comment is now ended. We will move to our next agenda item..."

That's the sound of a Loudoun County School Board meeting from last summer that, in retrospect, was a big mistake. The School Board cleared the room and continued the meeting, prompting parents to file a lawsuit.

Legal expert Rich Kelsey says the judge in the case did not look favorably on how the school board members handled the situation.

"The plaintiffs were awarded their attorney's fees, which usually means – bam – they won," Kelsey says. "They did not get an injunction for further action. That's a little higher standard. But I guess Loudoun County Public Schools is on notice about being able to close meetings."

Megan Rhyne at the Coalition for Open Government says school board members have to strike a balance between maintaining order and maintaining transparency.

"You have the ability to manage order in your meetings, and they certainly have the tools to stop a meeting, to stop public comment until they can return order," Rhyne explains. "What they can't do, though, is keep on meeting after the public is out of the room."

The lesson for school board members across Virginia, she says, is that public meetings should remain open to the public.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria.