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Judge says RI school board must open talks on “high stakes”

By Steven Brown, executive director, American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island

PROVIDENCE – A judge agreed with the ACLU of Rhode Island in blocking the state Board of Education from meeting in private to hear from invited “experts” on its “high stakes testing” requirement for high school seniors.

Superior Court Judge Daniel Procaccini said allowing such a discussion to take place in private during a board retreat would significantly undermine the purpose of the state’s open meetings law.

The high stakes testing issue has received extraordinary public attention in recent months. As a result of the testing requirement, which is scheduled to take effect in 2014, approximately 4,000 students face the risk of not graduating because of their scores on the standardized test being used.

Although members of the public had consistently attended board meetings throughout the year to speak about the need for a re-examination of the testing requirement, the scheduled retreat marked the first time it had been placed on the board’s agenda.

As Rick Richards, one of the ACLU’s plaintiffs and a former state Department of Education employee himself, noted when the suit was filed: “The Board of Education’s tendency to make important decisions without open discussion or meaningful public input presents formidable obstacles to keeping the ‘public’ in public education.”

Other than calling it a “retreat,” the board never gave a good reason why the meeting could or should be closed to the public. When the retreat was first planned, Chair Eva-Marie Mancuso called it an opportunity for board members to “discuss issues amongst themselves.”

Later – perhaps recognizing that that was the very essence of a public meeting under the law – she claimed that the board members would merely listen to the presentations and ask questions directed solely at the presenters, and not “discuss the issues amongst themselves” at all.

Fortunately, this didn’t fool anyone, least of all the judge.

Although his order technically applied only to that portion of the Aug. 24-25 retreat dealing with high stakes testing, the board saw the writing on the wall and quickly agreed to open the entire two-day session to the public.

For at least those two days, we can count on the sun shining figuratively, if not literally, on the board – which, of course, was the intent of the open meetings law all along.