E-R to CUSD: Let us in

Chico school officials, while maintaining they had the right to exclude a reporter from strategic planning meetings, have nonetheless thrown media watchdogs some scraps of information after being threatened with legal action.

It may not be enough to stave off the daily Chico Enterprise-Record, which is taking the Chico Unified School District to task over what its legal advisers believe is a clear violation of the Ralph M. Brown Act governing public meetings in California.

In recent weeks, attorneys for the newspaper and the CUSD volleyed letters debating whether the Strategic Planning Team, a 29-member group of school officials, parents, teachers and others, is a legislative body created by the school board and thus subject to state open-meetings laws.

The team met three times in early January, and, after being allowed to sit in on part of the first meeting, E-R reporter John Michael was asked to leave when the discussion got dicey. He tried to return later and was ordered out, he reported. The group, which will later form “action teams,” had been directed to come up with specific ideas on how to improve the district. The CUSD has budgeted $368,558 to develop and implement the plan.

“Because the planning team and action teams are both committees created by formal action of the school board, they clearly are legislative bodies subject to the Brown Act,” wrote Rachel Matteo-Boehm, the E-R’s attorney and a former Chicoan who works for Steinhart & Falconer, in San Francisco. Excluding the reporter, she stated, “violates the public’s right to full, timely and accurate information about how the district is conducting the public’s business.”

The CUSD’s attorney, Greg Einhorn, contends that although the board did approve the timeline and budget for the plan and directed officials to pick the team, “it is a committee of the superintendent.”

He said in an interview that the district—taking a cue from the facilitator it hired—felt “the meeting was closed so there could be a full and unvarnished dialogue.”

E-R Editor David Little said that, while the paper doesn’t want to stifle dialogue, most important is journalists’ duty to the public. Strategic planning is “an expensive process, and it’s an important process.”

Little’s initial reaction was “disbelief” that his reporter had been kicked out, especially after he had been told he could stay and was allowed to observe for some time.

Rather than force a court battle, the paper just wants district officials to “admit that they broke the law” and let reporters into future meetings, Little said.

Terry Francke, general counsel for the California First Amendment Coalition (CFAC), said appeals court decisions have upheld the idea that committees like the Strategic Planning Team are subject to open-meetings laws.

“There’s some pretty clear law on this,” he said. “The critical question is not who appoints the members but rather [that] the committee was appointed as a matter of board policy.”

The CUSD did provide the E-R with what Einhorn referred to as “the written product of the SPT’s necessarily private discussion” and shortly thereafter offered the same to the News & Review. “Once the discussion takes place, it makes sense to release them,” Einhorn said.

But Little said the point was not to end up with "filtered" information. "We’d much rather get it ourselves than have it dictated to us."