Oregon Public Broadcasting

When is an open meeting not a public meeting? Apparently, when it's run by a key advisory group at Portland Public Schools.

PPS is gearing up for changes to two of the most controversial policies in any school district: the boundaries determining which schools kids will attend, and the rules governing transferring out of those schools.

The Portland school board will ultimately vote on the new policies. Their meetings are broadcast, recorded, and are held in full view of the public.

But board members are likely to lean heavily on recommendations from advisory groups, like the Superintendent's Advisory Committee on Enrollment and Transfer, or SACET.

Tuesday night, members of SACET met with representatives from the Center for Public Service at Portland State University, who are working recommendations for the best way to redraw school boundaries.

The district said the SACET meeting was "open to the public." But, the district says it is not a "public meeting" under Oregon law.

Sounds like that famous Bill Clinton line, "It depends on what the meaning of is, is." Here's how PPS appears to be parsing this distinction:

1.) An "open to the public meeting" means reporters are forbidden from recording what's happening. In an email, the district's chief of communications and public affairs, Jon Isaacs, denied OPB's request to make an audio recording of the meeting, saying "SACET is an advisory committee and is not subject to open meeting laws. They choose to post their meeting agendas and open them to the public, but they do not allow recording."

2.) It means SACET can close its proceedings when it chooses to do so. On at least two occasions, SACET has met behind closed doors, and has not published minutes about its proceedings. On Feb. 11, the committee closed a meeting for nearly an hour and a half, and never released the minutes. Three months later, on May 27 -- just a week before SACET presented its preliminary recommendations to the Portland school board -- the committee closed its meeting entirely. No minutes have been published from that meeting, either.

3.) It means even when the meeting is "open," it's closed. More than an hour of Tuesday night's two-hour meeting took place in "small group discussions," which were inaudible from the section of the room designated for the public and media.

When I saw the meeting break up into small groups, I asked Isaacs if I could sit at his table and listen to the discussion. He checked in with the other SACET members at his table, and said "yes." They were reflecting on their own experiences with racial and economic equity, and how it relates to school. I didn't get to hear much.

In spite of Isaacs and the other participants at his table giving me permission to attend their discussion, I was told to return to the public area by the district's head of enrollment and transfer, Judy Brennan. The small groups later gave brief summaries of the lengthy group discussions to everyone in attendance.

I contacted a regular observer of SACET meetings about the committee's practice of distancing the public from the process. He said "it does concern me" because there are times when "we don't know what happened at that meeting."

This story originally appeared on Oregon Public Broadcasting.

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