Newspaper files open-meeting complaint after ID Ed Board session

From the Associated Press

By JOHN MILLER
Associated Press Writer

BOISE, Idaho (AP) _ The Idaho State Board of Education held a four-hour closed meeting last week to discuss eliminating a statewide ninth-grade test due to a cash crisis, despite a state law requiring most of its sessions be open to the public.

The Spokesman-Review newspaper, which first reported details of the executive session, on Wednesday filed a complaint with Attorney General Lawrence Wasden.

Following the executive session Dec. 6 in Pocatello, the board this week opted to cut the Idaho Standard Achievement Tests for ninth-graders because the agency didn’t have $826,000 to pay Data Recognition Corp., a Minnesota-based testing service that administers the tests.

High school students must pass the 10th-grade version of the test to graduate. Ninth-grade tests were another chance to practice.

The closed meeting was questioned by some lawmakers, including Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, the chairman of the Senate Education Committee. He told the Spokesman-Review that dumping the ninth-grade test was “not one of those items that’s allowed in executive session.”

Carla Savalli, a senior editor for the Spokane, Wash., newspaper, said it filed the complaint as part of its government-watchdog role.

“We vigorously defend the public’s right to know,” Savalli said. “We take that role very seriously.”

Mark Browning, a Board of Education spokesman, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that Deputy Attorney General Jeff Schrader said the executive session was appropriate.

“I was assured that it was within the bounds of the open meetings law,” Browning said.

When asked by the AP, Schrader declined to provide his rationale justifying an executive session.

Bob Cooper, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office in Boise, confirmed it had received the complaint. He declined further comment.

Knowingly violating the law carries a maximum $150 fine per person for a first offense.

The Idaho Open Meeting Law requires 24-hour meeting and agenda notice be given before holding an executive session. The notice must give the reason for the closed meeting.

The law allows closing the meetings to cover such things as hiring new employees, disciplinary action, labor negotiations, plotting legal strategy, and preliminary trade negotiations where the government is competing with other states or nations, among other things.

“The state Board of Education is violating the Idaho Open Meeting Law by not specifying under which exemption it is holding a closed session; by not keeping minutes of executive sessions that include ‘a specific reference to the statutory subsection authorizing the executive session and sufficient detail to convey the general subject matter;’ and by discussing public policy issues including student testing and the board’s budget in closed session,” according to the Spokesman-Review’s complaint.

The complaint also alleges that board members communicated illegally prior to this week’s decision to eliminate testing.

ISAT testing-related budget problems began earlier this year, when former Board of Education Executive Director Dwight Johnson ordered second-grade and ninth-grade ISAT tests, but failed to see that Data Recognition Corp.’s contract didn’t include those tests in the price of federally required testing for third- through eighth-graders and 10th-graders.

When bills started arriving from the company, the agency realized the mistake, Browning said.

“We said, ‘Wait a minute, we’ve got bills coming in that are more than we can pay for,'” he said.

In September, Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter ordered the board to eliminate voluntary second-grade and ninth-grade testing. The board cut the second-grade tests, but its staff tried to find money for the ninth-grade tests.

That failed, Browning said, forcing current Board of Education Executive Director Mike Rush to cut the program on Monday following discussions with board members, including board President Milford Terrell.

“Mike Rush made his decision in consultation with Milford,” Browning said. “He said, ‘We cannot find funding for this, there’s no way to pay for it, we’ve got to pull the plug.'”

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press.

From the Associated Press

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