July 28, 2021
By Jon Riches
The public’s business should be open to the public. And under Rhode Island law, it is. Yet when mom Nicole Solas sought to attend the meeting of a publicly funded committee that meets weekly to discuss and make recommendations on policies that apply across her daughter’s school district, she was told that the meeting was closed and parents were not welcome.
Now, the Goldwater Institute is pushing back: We’ve joined with the Stephen Hopkins Center for Civil Rights in Rhode Island to represent Nicole in a complaint before the state attorney general asserting that the school district has violated Rhode Island’s Open Meetings Act (OMA) by closing these meetings to the public.
Rhode Island’s OMA 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.” The presumption under that law is always in favor of public access.
Yet in March 2021, the South Kingstown School Committee signed an agreement with the South Kingstown BIPOC Advisory Board to hold weekly meetings where district policies ranging from student discipline to coaching to hiring would be discussed and where recommendations would be made on those issues by the Board to the School Committee. In other words, the Board was charged with advisory power by the School Committee over matters of significant public interest—the education of South Kingstown’s youth. The Board is also publicly funded with taxpayer dollars by the School Committee, and two members of the School Committee’s subcommittee on policy sit on the Board.
When Nicole learned that the Board was meeting every week for at least 25 weeks to discuss and recommend policies that would impact the education of South Kingstown students, including her daughter, Nicole asked to attend the meetings under the state OMA. Although Rhode Island law requires that “[e]very meeting of all public bodies shall be open to the public…”, the School Committee refused to grant Nicole access to the Board’s weekly meetings, contending that the Board is not a “public body.”
On the contrary, Rhode Island law makes clear that because the School Committee established and funded the Board for the express purpose of meeting regularly to discuss matters of significant public concern, and to serve in an advisory capacity to the School Committee on those matters. In short, Nicole has a right to access the public business being discussed and acted upon by the Board.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time that the School Committee has tried to hide its activity from parents like Nicole. When Nicole previously requested public information about what her daughter would be learning in kindergarten, the School Committee evaded large portions of her request and even threatened to sue Nicole because the district thought she was asking for too much information. After the Goldwater Institute got involved to help Nicole learn about her daughter’s curriculum, the district said that it would cost a whopping $74,000—a truly unreasonable amount to obtain information that should be available to parents.
Nor is the South Kingstown School Committee the only school board that has tried to evade open meeting requirements when infusing controversial content into schools. Earlier this spring, for instance, two Texas school board members were indicted for violating open meetings requirements when discussing the district’s diversity plan ahead of a vote. And in Arizona and elsewhere, districts’ social justice programming has been relegated to diversity, equity, and inclusion “committees” and “task forces” operating at levels below the district governing boards and with far less public visibility.
All parents have a right to know what their kids are learning in school. And school boards should be in the business of granting access to this information, not putting up every conceivable roadblock to hide it. Nicole Solas’s complaint will help ensure that the South Kingstown school board—and others like it—cannot develop our children’s education policies and curriculum behind closed doors.
Jon Riches is the Director of National Litigation at the Goldwater Institute.