School Districts Cannot Play Games To Restrict Public’s Right To Participate In Public Education

school board
Superintendent Dr. Jason Reynolds listens to Peoria Unified School District parent Heather Rooks during the August 12, 2021 meeting of the Governing Board.

Ten or so years ago Tucson Unified School District implemented a resolution agreement with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights for attempting to restrict participation in governing board meetings by conducting the meeting in a room too small to accommodate those wishing to attend.

Recently the Catalina Foothills Governing Board cancelled their April 25th public meeting due to alleged but undisclosed ‘threats of violence and acts of intimation,’ against the board. The meeting was apparently rescheduled to April 28th but despite Open Meeting Law (OML) and presumably in part because of an AG Opinion giving the nod to virtual meetings during COVID this meeting was and apparently all meetings until further notice will be live streamed. This virtual meeting format denies the community the ability to address their elected representatives with public comments regarding the district’s “unwritten” policy allowing boys into girls’ restrooms, locker rooms and presumable vice versa.

This past week the Peoria Unified School District administration tried to take a play from the TUSD and CFSD playbooks. While not cancelling the meeting outright, they intended to limit community attendance solely to the seating capacity of the board room under the guise of “threats.” Which apparently in this case was Senator Anthony Kern (R LD27) tweeting and Senator Wendy Rogers (R LD7) retweeting the date and time of the board meeting to the community.

One can’t help but wonder if administrators and board members join organizations such as the AZ School Administrators and AZ School Board Association so that they can ‘collaborate’ on the ‘best practices’ to circumvent hearing the concerns of the community members they are supposed to serve and represent. But I digress.

According to a PUSD communication issued the day before the meeting “Doors to the Board room open at 5:45 p.m., but the lobby space will be closed to the public.” PUSD has recently been using the lobby for overflow capacity. In the past, when overflow attendance was anticipated, the district used a large conference room within the administration building to accommodate all who wished to attend as required by OML.

ARS 38-341.01 (A) requires in part that “All meetings of any public body shall be public meetings and ALL (emphasis mine) persons so desiring shall be permitted to attend and listen to the deliberations and proceedings.” The AG Handbook Open Meetings interprets this as “…not met if the public body…inhibits public attendance at public meetings, such as holding the meeting… in a room too small to accommodate the reasonably anticipated number of observers,…

And while ultimately the administration did allow community members into the lobby how many who may have wanted to attend did not because the district essentially told them they will be turned away from what is supposed to be an open public meeting?

The PUSD district administration has implemented an unwritten practice allowing biological boys into the girls’ restrooms, locker rooms and vice versa. But practices, rules and regulations are to come from board policy not administrative directives especially when kept secret from the parents and the community. And while all the board members should be outraged that administration circumvented their authority a majority of the Peoria board has been willing to abdicate its responsibility in this area.

First the PUSD board tried to hold the discussion of a bathroom policy in a secret executive session under the guise of legal advice. Next they disregarded and did an end run around their own policy adoption process to stop the mandated review of a policy submitted by board clerk Heather Rooks. Now this past meeting they intended to unlawfully shut many of the community out of a public meeting. It is apparent that Superintendent Reynolds, President Sandoval are doing, and board members Sorensen and Ewing are supporting, everything they can think of to avoid having to listen to parents defending their daughters’ physical and emotional safety and the God given right to privacy.

Governing board members are elected to represent their constituents, not rubber stamp the whims of hired, government employees. Borrowing from the lyrics of an American folk song – Oh, when will they ever learn? Oh, when will they ever learn?

Diane Douglas was AZ Superintendent of Public Instruction 2015-2019. She served on PUSD Governing Board 2005-2012; President 2008, 2009; the State Board of Education and the State Board for Charter Schools 2015-2019.

About Diane Douglas, Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction 2015-2018 36 Articles
Diane Douglas is an American politician and educator expert, who served as Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction from 2015-2019. She was elected on November 4, 2014. Douglas succeeded then-incumbent John Huppenthal, whom she defeated for the party's nomination in the Republican primary on August 26, 2014.