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The 'Safe Room': When the Pinellas County School Board goes behind closed doors



At least twice a month, the Pinellas County School Board gathers on the second floor of an administration building at 301 Fourth St. SW in Largo.

They meet for a few hours, approve hundreds of personnel changes and hundreds of thousands of dollars of expenditures. They discuss policy matters both meaty and obscure. They listen to parents and employees and, almost always, a couple of angry gadflies who plead with them to vote one way or another, implement this program or that. And then they adjourn and the seven school board members disperse.

Except sometimes they don't.

There's a room behind the board table to which, every now and then, you might see a board member retreat during the meeting. It's a place, board administrative assistant Debbie Beaty tells me, stocked with drinks and snacks, equipped with two restrooms, a refrigerator and a sink -- a place where individual members can refresh themselves when meetings drag on and nature calls.

On the outside of the door is a sign that reads "Safe Room." It's one of several spaces at the administration building designated as such because it would make a practical refuge should a storm hit or an intruder wreak havoc.

But it often happens that board members, after finishing their official board business, gather as a group in this "Safe Room" and close the door behind them, completely cutting themselves off from public view and public hearing.

This week, following a March 6 meeting that board chair Robin Wikle described as "rough," the board did just that.

After concluding their post-meeting debriefing (during which they stand behind the board table and talk about how the meeting went), they filed into the room, closed the door, and emerged later to greet two reporters and a district public information officer -- a spokeswoman who, while they were cloistered, told reporters that she didn't know what they were doing in the room.

When I questioned board members Tuesday about what they were doing, Wikle held up a card she said the group had given her in celebration of her March 2 birthday. She also said they'd talked about new board member Glenton Gilzean's recent nuptials.

Florida's Sunshine Law does not prohibit school board members from talking privately with one another, as long as what they discuss doesn't involve any matters that might come before them for board action.

As Pinellas school board attorney Jim Robinson wrote me a few weeks ago when I asked in writing to know what board members Peggy O'Shea, Janet Clark and Carol Cook were discussing when I came upon them speaking in low voices while seated around a cafeteria table together, "There are so many subjects that may properly be discussed during meeting and workshop breaks, and even during meetings, that the list is virtually limitless."

So, the board has the right to meet together -- all seven of them -- without calling a public meeting if they want to talk about shoes or birthdays or weddings or any number of things.

My question: Why would they want to?

"We're not going to abuse the Sunshine Law," board member Terry Krassner said. "That's not going to happen."

"I believe board members monitor themselves," board member Linda Lerner said, pointing out that multiple members commonly attend the same conferences and community meetings without public meetings being called. "If anyone wants to break the Sunshine, there's plenty of opportunity to do that ... It's not happening."

But as members of the public -- and of the media -- we are forced to take their word for it.

Wikle, who regularly advocates transparency and clear communication, told me when we talked later that she took personal offense that my questions seemed to "presume" that board members were breaking the law.

I told her that I did not presume they were doing something wrong, but that the situation lends itself to obvious question. Why, if all they are doing is exchanging birthday cards, couldn't they do that in public view? Why compromise the appearance of transparency in order to trade wedding stories behind a closed door? If there is nothing to hide, why hide?

It's good for board members to get along -- and maybe they get along better if they're able to sing happy birthday to one another seven times a year. But board members are elected to represent those they serve. And those they serve didn't get an invitation to the Safe Room.

"I personally think you bring up some valid concerns," Wikle said after we spoke longer. "It never is my intent to not be accessible to the public."

Wikle said she will broach the topic Tuesday during a 1:30 p.m. board workshop.

[Last modified: Friday, March 9, 2012 12:58pm]


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