Manassas Journal Messenger | Colgan gives board advice

“Watch the subcommittees” – that’s the advice offered Manassas School Board members by Sen. Charles T. “Chuck” Colgan, D-29th, during a meeting Tuesday to consider the chances of passing local legislative priorities during the next session of the General Assembly.

Around the third week of February, Colgan said, education subcommittee members will present their budget advisements to the full committee for consideration.

“The key to getting what you want out of this budget,” he said, is to petition those subcommittee members directly. “But we’re sort of in a state of flux right now, because we haven’t made the decision on who’s going to serve on what committee.”

Colgan’s statements came at a gathering of Manassas School Board members with the senator, along with a staffer from the office of Del. Jackson H. Miller, R-50th Dist.

The meeting was not properly advertised in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act, according to the executive director of the Virginia Press Association.

Section 2.2-3707 of FOIA defines a meeting and dictates the means by which the public should be notified of open meetings. In general, when two or more members of a government board gather to discuss business, that’s an open meeting that requires public notification so those interested might attend.

Notification must include the time, date and location of the meeting and must be placed in “a prominent public location at which notices are regularly posted and in the office of the clerk of the public body,” the FOIA section reads. Notification for Manassas School Board meetings generally occurs on the Internet at the “e-Board Meeting Homepage.” In addition, for those who subscribe, e-mails are sent alerts of upcoming public events.

For this particular meeting, some emails were sent – the press, for instance, received its notification by way of a Dec. 13 e-mail notice. But no Internet posting notification for the Dec. 18 meeting with Colgan was given.

That’s because the gathering of board members and state officials was not a meeting, said Manassas City Public Schools Superintendent Gail Pope.

“All we were doing was giving him a legislative packet. This was not a meeting,” she said, adding that board members and state politicians have been meeting in such a way for years without going through the public notification process — and in fact, some attended a lunch with Colgan just last week. Whether public business was discussed at this lunch or not, Pope could not say; she did not attend, she said.

“But this wouldn’t have been posted for the public,” she said, of Tuesday’s meeting, “because it wasn’t a meeting.”

Not so, said Ginger Stanley, a VPA official who has tracked and advised on FOIA law for 24 years.

“Any time more than two [board members] get together, it is a public meeting,” she said, adding that this particular scenario seemed a cut-and-dry example of a violation of FOIA meeting notification rules. “It seems in this case like more than two met … and they have to follow notification laws. Yes, they have to take minutes, too.”

Pope said no minutes, or official written recording, of the meeting were taken because it wasn’t an official meeting.

In discussions at the meeting, Manassas school officials ran down eight priorities they hope will pass in the General Assembly, and topping the list is a shared goal with two other school boards, Manassas Park and Prince William County.

“I’m personally excited by this … the collaboration is incredible,” said Scott Albrecht, vice chair, about the number-one priority of seeking a $100,000 planning grant for a regional governor’s school that offers a curriculum of perceived great need. “We’re focusing on a weakness that we know we have nationwide in science, technology, engineering and math and I would hope you will sign on to this.”

For his part, Colgan said he already had a piece of legislation drafted that would help this effort.

Another goal supported by Colgan – he introduced legislation last year on the issue – dealt with English As a Second Language, or ESOL, issues and refiguring the funding formulas to reflect a more accurate cost of the program, so that localities receive fairer shares.

Similar changes should come to the rebenchmarking system, school officials said; board members hope to see the General Assembly “update the Standards of Quality funding formulas to reflect cost increases in such areas as fuel, health care and teacher salaries,” according to a written copy of the board’s legislative priorities.

“There’s a lot of rhetoric,” Albrecht said, of the rebenchmarking goal, “but when you look at what it actually costs to provide services … [you’ll find] the cost of localities continues to increase and in many respects, the percentage from the state continues to erode.”

What’s needed, board members say, is an honored commitment from the General Assembly to fully fund the future costs of implementing Standards of Quality programs, and a concerted effort to close the $1.2 billion gap that has grown these past months due to underfunding on the commonwealth’s part.

Other legislative priorities discussed at the meeting: a look at the fiscal autonomy issue and a study of how elected school boards might best raise revenues; support of legislation that allows locals to control school schedules; an ongoing commitment to boost teacher salaries using more state dollars; and a commitment to uphold local School Board authority.

They also discussed the issue of vouchers and tuition tax credits, and clarified that the board view was not so much an opposition to the voucher system, but rather an opposition to enabling legislation before “the state fully funds it obligation” to other education expenses, the written priority sheet read.

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