In an important victory for open government, a judge ruled today that the RI Board of Education violated the open meetings law when it held a secret meeting last September to discuss whether to reexamine the Board’s controversial “high stakes testing” graduation requirement. The Board held the secret meeting in response to a formal petition filed by the ACLU of Rhode Island and numerous other organizations for reconsideration of the testing mandate.
In his ruling today, Rhode Island Superior Court Judge Luis Matos declared the 6-5 vote against the petition null and void and gave the Board 30 days to publicly discuss and vote on the petition at a Board meeting. This is the second time Judge Matos found the Board in violation of an open government law, and it follows another violation of the open meetings law that the Board was found to have committed last August.
In addition to asking the court to declare the September vote null and void, ACLU of Rhode Island volunteer attorney Marc Gursky asked the Court to impose a $5,000 fine against the Board for willfully violating the Open Meetings Act and to award attorneys’ fees. The judge held off ruling on those issues for the time being.
In February, the same judge had ruled that the Board had violated another open government law known as the Administrative Procedures Act by failing to consider the petition, filed by seventeen organizations concerned about the NECAP requirement, in a timely manner. Demonstrating a pattern of disregard for open government, the Board had also been rebuked by another judge last August for seeking to violate the open meetings law on the very same issue of high stakes testing. That decision was the result of another ACLU lawsuit filed after Board of Education Chair Eva-Marie Mancuso announced that a Board retreat – which would include a briefing on high stakes testing - would be held behind closed doors. At an emergency hearing on that suit, a Superior Court judge ordered that the briefing be held in public.
ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown said today: “The court's ruling is a ringing affirmation of the principles underlying the state's open meetings law. We are pleased that the judge made very clear that the public cannot have confidence in government decisions if they are made behind closed doors. We are hopeful that when the high stakes testing requirement is given a fair and full airing at a public meeting, Board members will recognize the damage that has been caused by the NECAP test and reverse its position.”
Plaintiff Rick Richards, a former employee in RIDE’s department of testing, said: “This is a victory for openness and accountability. If the Board wants to hold students accountable, it should be accountable too.” ACLU attorney Gursky said: “I am very pleased by the judge’s ruling today. Let’s hope the Board gets it right this time.”
More information about the lawsuit, Providence Student Union v. R.I. Board of Education, is available online at www.riaclu.org.