The school board for Williamsburg and James City County met Tuesday in closed session to discuss a personnel issue.
Last fall, a successful high school football had been accused last fall of mistreating a player during practice. The athletic department's investigation cleared the coach, but the parent who complained took the matter to the administrative officers, where the coach got word that he was about to be fired. He resigned instead, effective at the end of the season. The coach said recently that he tried to rescind his resignation but that administrators wouldn't let him.
So, the school board met to discuss the coach's situation. That's easy enough to understand. The first exemption listed in the Freedom of Information Act for closed meetings is personnel issues.
There's a reason for this exemption: to protect the privacy of the employee, and to allow board members to discuss the employee frankly.
So, why am I writing about this? OK, so yes, I live in Williamsburg. I grew up in Williamsburg. I even went to the same high school, albeit back in the days when Methuselah was a pup. But, I don't know any of the people involved here, not the coach, not the administrators, not the players or the parents. My own child isn't even old enough to be in school, so I have no personal stake in this. My interest here is purely as an access advocate.
Because here's the twist. When the board met, they weren't alone. Instead, they invited four former and current players and their families to address the board in support of the coach.
The public. In a closed meeting.
Is this starting to sound odd?
Well, maybe these individual had some specific information the board needed to hear.
Well, maybe the board members needed to ask some specific and frank questions of these individuals.
Nope. As reported by the Daily Press, the board members did not speak, did not comment. They just let the public talk.
Don't get me wrong: I think it's GREAT that the public was given a chance to address the board. I applaud the board for providing a platform for what has turned out to be an emotional community issue.
But, a closed session? To hear the public's praise of the coach and not to comment itself, not to discuss, not to offer opinion?
I'm thinking this isn't quite what the personnel exemption was meant to cover.
All meeting exemptions in FOIA are discretionary. Protestations that, "Personnel matters are not handled in open session," notwithstanding, there was nothing legally prohibiting the school board from holding this forum in public.
And if one of the policy reasons for holding a closed meeting for personnel is to protect personal details about the employee from getting out to the public, isn't that reason defeated by inviting members of the public in? These people will (and should!) discuss what they said with others not invited in, and with the press, and perhaps with the coach.
I'm going to chalk this one up to punting when they should have gone for the first down.