More D.C. Open Meetings Act Enforcement: Education Funding "Working Group" Told to Meet in Public

In a July 21, 2016, opinion, the D.C. Office of Open Government directed the District's Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) to end plans for months of private meetings of a school funding “working group” of officials and the public called for by law.

Established to pore over data to advise the mayor and the D.C. Council on the right funding levels to reflect different costs of educating students with diverse needs from pre-K through high school, the group had held its first session June 29 behind closed doors, without public announcement or agenda.

OSSE had earlier declined the Open Government director's request (after initial investigation of a complaint by this blogger) to postpone the meeting until it could be held according to law. OSSE also did not provide documents needed for the investigation, prompting the Open Government office to issue an interim opinion July 15, warning of enforcement litigation in Superior Court. 

After full records were disclosed, the Office issued its final opinion July 21. It confirmed the working group is a public body covered by the D.C. Open Meetings law and directed that future proceedings follow its requirements including advance public notice and agenda, closure of any part only under strict rules, and promptly available full records of meetings.

The working group's stumble was only the most recent problem in years of efforts to develop solid grounds for allocating school funds in D.C. in a way that fairly reflects the varied costs of meeting different students' needs--a topic with increasing public concern as charter schools seek adequate funding to serve their growing fraction of D.C. students.

An Education Finance Reform Commission recommended further work on the formula in its 2012 report; a consultant study of funding needs for adequate education of various types was done in early 2014. When an informal review process lapsed, the Council ordered in a 2014 law that OSSE convene a working group and use it to deliver recommendations by January 2016. Yet in February 2016, the OSSE superintendent asked for a year's extension as the group was still not yet established.

Writing in its Fiscal Year 2017 Budget Report in May 2016, the Council Education Committee noted "Though the request for an extension was granted, OSSE does not seem to be meeting any milestones with regard to establishing the working group or beginning a review" of the funding issues.  It urged the working group to get going and required progress reports every few months.  The June 29 meeting was the long-awaited response. OSSE has now published a webpage with dates of future open meetings and materials from the sessions already held.

The opinion by the Office of Open Government in this case follows other enforcement actions in recent months based on complaints by the D.C. Open Government Coalition and others. See, for example, decisions of the Office concerning the Board of Commissioners of the D.C. Housing Authority, the D.C. Board of Medicine, and the Deputy Mayor for Education's Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force, all found to have violated the Open Meetings Act by meeting in secret. 

The law applies to "public bodies" in the District (see definition in the law). The complaint procedure is available here and a prompt investigation is required by the Open Government office regulations.