Secrecy will not foster trust in a time of increased school scrutiny. (Photo illustration by Iowa Capital Dispatch with images via Canva and courtesy of the Bettendorf Community School District)
These are challenging times for Iowa’s 327 public school districts.
They are being watched closely by state officials and lawmakers, by parents and by others in the community. These eyes are looking for signs schools are treading lightly on topics like racial history and sexual orientation or that schools are being distracted from dealing with unruly kids who disrupt other students’ learning.
With this heightened scrutiny, some districts are doing themselves a disservice when they try to keep the public in the dark.
Here’s a real-life example. It illustrates my belief government will never build trust and confidence with its constituents when government leaders engage in secrecy and deception. This also is an example that a state government board dealing exclusively with transparency issues may be too timid.
In 2022, one day after the mass shootings at a school in Uvalde, Texas, the Bettendorf school board met with about 300 parents who were angry about frequent incidents of student misconduct at the middle school.
That board gathering was not open to everyone, and people who were there were prevented from recording the session for others to view later. Amazingly, the school district’s communications director was at the doors blocking journalists from entering and reporting on parents’ criticism.
Iowa’s government meetings law plainly states state and local government boards, with only a few limited exceptions, must conduct their business in public meetings open to all, including journalists.
A majority of school board members were present on May 25, 2022. The topic was a fundamental responsibility of the school board — protecting the safety and well-being of Bettendorf’s 4,000 students. And board members were there to hear from parents to inform the board’s policy-making decisions.
The second sentence of Iowa’s open meetings law contains guidance too often ignored by government officials like those in Bettendorf — and those on the Iowa Public Information Board, unfortunately. That sentence says this about the law’s intent: “Ambiguity in the construction or application of this chapter should be resolved in favor of openness.”
When school leaders never responded to concerns I expressed about the media being barred from the meeting, three Quad-Cities television stations, Quad-City Times and the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, the nonprofit, nonpartisan organization I lead, joined in a lawsuit against the Bettendorf board. We asked a judge to find the board violated Iowa law.
A Bettendorf parent — who also was concerned journalists and some citizens were prevented from attending the meeting — filed a complaint with the Iowa Public Information Board. Instead of admitting they used poor judgment in restricting who could attend, Bettendorf officials dug in their heels and fought the complaint.
Inexplicably, the IPIB dismissed the parent’s complaint last March, ignoring the second sentence in the open meetings law — the sentence about resolving any ambiguity in favor of openness.
The IPIB swallowed hook, line and sinker a laughable claim by school attorneys that school board members were at the gathering only as interested citizens. The IPIB also concluded the gathering was not an official meeting because board members did not discuss among themselves the concerns parents voiced — even though a formal Iowa Attorney General’s Office opinion in 1981 said information-gathering is part of a government board’s deliberation process.
While the Bettendorf parent’s complaint was still being considered by the IPIB, school lawyers reached out to the attorneys for the Iowa FOI Council and media. They asked us to settle our still-pending lawsuit. After several months of negotiations, the settlement was accepted by both sides last month.
But hold onto your hat.
After insisting to the IPIB for nine months the gathering was not an official meeting, the agreement the Bettendorf board approved states unequivocally, “The Board will acknowledge that the May 25, 2022, gathering did not meet the notice and other requirements of Iowa Code Chapter 21.2. … The Board will ensure that future gatherings concerning district policies and procedures attended by a majority of the Board members will be noticed and conducting following the requirements of Iowa Code Chapter 21.”
The school board also agreed to pay the plaintiffs $6,500 for our attorney fees.
Bettendorf officials should be embarrassed by this case. But the Iowa Public Information Board should be embarrassed, too. The IPIB was created to be a non-court referee for disputes over access to government meetings and records. But its flawed analysis in the Bettendorf case does not bolster public confidence in the board.
The IPIB decision was rendered without its members reconciling the staff’s recommendation with the Legislature’s statement of intent I mentioned earlier, the law’s directive for resolving ambiguity about government meetings in favor of openness.
If you want more evidence Bettendorf school officials may not grasp the importance of transparency, consider this: When the school board approved settling the lawsuit last month, minutes from the meeting did not inform the public what the legal dispute was about, who the parties were or what the board agreed to do.
And we wonder why there is distrust of government.
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