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Madison School Board

Madison School Board president James Howard listens to other board members during a meeting in 2017. Board members agreed Monday not to pursue a proposed policy change where the board president would have the power to deny or alter requests for district information made by other board members.

Madison School Board members quashed a proposal Monday that could have allowed the board president to block other members from requesting information about the school district they are elected to govern.

During an Operations Work Group meeting, board members agreed not to pursue a proposed change to board policy that would have given the board president the ability to deny or alter requests for district information made by other board members.

District spokeswoman Rachel Strauch-Nelson said the policy change is part of a routine update of policies and is meant to “codify the board’s current ways of working.”

“We work very hard to fulfill all requests in a timely way,” she said. “In the very rare instance that a request is very difficult to fulfill, we run that request past the board president so they can decide the best way to move forward.”

Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham said at the meeting the intent of having the president deny a request would be to ensure a district employee is not put in the position of telling a board member a request is too difficult to fulfill.

Several board members had expressed serious concerns going into Monday’s meeting about the proposed policy’s impact on how they do their jobs and the public’s access to information about the school district.

“When I first read this policy I was shocked,” said board member Nicki Vander Meulen. “Why should one board member control and have the power to restrict the information to our whole board of elected officials?”

Strauch-Nelson said the district “values the importance of being open and transparent with board members as well as the general public and takes seriously its responsibility under open meetings and open records laws, and again, the board can certainly clarify this language.”

Vander Meulen said she trusts the current board president James Howard and administration, but didn’t want the language in policy because she can’t predict who will sit on the board in the future and how the policy could be used.

“I think that potentially could get real problematic,” board member Dean Loumos said of the proposal. “The current makeup of the board is pretty agreeable, and we work pretty well together, but at some point that might not be the case.”

Board member T.J. Mertz said the proposed policy change implied there’s a current problem with board members’ requests for information — including, he said, inquiries that have uncovered changes to special education staffing levels that the board was not notified about and an increase in the number of bilingual and special education staff not being fully licensed.

“We try to work together but we have disagreements, too, and this clearly could be used as a political tool to block the efforts of one board member, or two board members, or three board members,” Mertz said.

“What happens if somebody — a teacher or a parent — raises an issue with me and I say, ‘Hey, I’ll look into it,’ and I go back to them and say ‘I asked for more information on this and the board president vetoed (the request).’ What is that going to look like?” Mertz said.

Although there was little discussion on the proposal at Monday’s meeting, all members seemed in favor of not pursuing the change.

Member Kate Toews simply said, “Just kill it.”

Bill Lueders, president of the open government advocacy group Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said the proposal seems to give a lesser right of access to information to school board members than to anyone else.

“Perhaps the issue is free access (versus) access that is charged for,” Lueders said of requests for records.

“The school board might be within its rights to make requesters of large requests pay a fee for records even if they serve on the school board. But it should not be able to deny requests,” Lueders said.

Vander Meulen said she respects Howard and district administration under Cheatham “but I truly believe government has a duty to be transparent.”

“This sort of policy is the opposite of transparency and makes the public question the MMSD Board and their motives,” she said.

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Molly Beck covers politics and state government for the Wisconsin State Journal.