I heard a rumor on Monday that the Baltimore school board would be meeting that afternoon for Dr. Alonso to brief members on the budget. When I called the school system and asked (a.) if there was a meeting and (b.) if I could attend, the answer to both questions was no. I was told that the CEO was giving a briefing to board member Kalman "Buzzy" Hettleman, who was heading out of town and will miss the big board meeting next Tuesday where the budget (containing $50 million in cuts and a massive reorganization of the system) is publicly presented.
But as I later found out, there was a period of the briefing when five board members -- a quorum, or majority, of the nine-member body -- were present. Apparently the meeting started with four: Hettleman, Robert Heck, Jerrelle Francois and Maxine Wood. And then George VanHook showed up, making it an official board meeting that should have been posted and open to the public. While the board is permitted to meet in closed session to discuss legal and personnel matters, state law stipulates that policy briefings must be public when a quorum is present. And even for closed session meetings, public notice is supposed to be given (which, in Baltimore, means a notice is taped to the door at North Avenue, so you have to be in the building to know about it).
Janet Johnson, the board executive, said VanHook was only in the room for about 20 minutes on Monday, maybe less. He came late and left early. Another board member present estimated that VanHook stayed closer to an hour.
Johnson said she typically tries to monitor who will be attending board committee meetings, briefings and other gatherings to make sure that a quorum is not present. The board has several three-member committees that meet privately all the time on topics ranging from finance to special education. And this week, Alonso scheduled multiple briefings for board members individually or in small groups, to prepare them for what's coming.
On Monday, Johnson said she was only expecting a few board members for what was billed as a finance committee meeting. (Hettleman chairs the finance committee.) "The third was fine, the fourth was scary, the fifth came in and left," she said.
Turnout was better than she anticipated because board members were so curious about what Alonso had to say, they didn't want to wait until later in the week to be briefed. After last year's fiasco, where the board approved a budget filled with errors and discrepencies, I don't think anyone would argue against strong board involvement in the process this time around.
But the law is still the law.
I asked Jack Schwartz, assistant attorney general with the state's Open Meetings Compliance Board, about what's supposed to happen when a public body inadvertently ends up with a quorum. His response:
"The general rule is that you have to give notice of meetings, and a meeting consists of a gathering of a quorum. If a situation arises where there was no anticipation of a quorum but it turns out that unexpectedly a quorum materializes and no notice was given, then the members of a public body need to be conscious of that fact. I’d say the response under those circumstances can be that enough people leave so there’s no quorum, or they can avoid the conduct of public business."
In other words, the board members should have turned the conversation from Alonso's PowerPoint to social banter (perhaps about Hettleman's upcoming trip?), or someone should have left right away -- not 20 minutes, or an hour, or however long it was, later.