A parent-based committee to review elementary school attendance zones canceled its scheduled meeting Wednesday to give the public adequate notice about the session.
The cancellation came after lawyers for the St. Petersburg Times challenged the district's attempt to conduct the meeting in private. Committee leader Linda Fultz, also transportation director, told a Times reporter on Tuesday that the public was not welcome to attend the deliberations.
"Because some of the committee members are parents, and because the committee was formed by the School Board for the purpose of making recommendations to the Board for final action on a matter of legitimate public interest, the committee itself is subject to the Sunshine Law," Times lawyer Penelope Bryan wrote Tuesday in a letter to board attorney Karen Gaffney.
She referred to the minutes of the board's April 15, 2003, workshop, which stated that the committee should work with the district staff on "getting recommendations to the board." She offered two Florida attorney general opinions to bolster her position.
Gaffney responded midafternoon Wednesday with a faxed, handwritten note stating that the meeting would not take place. Board vice chairman Jim Malcolm later explained that Gaffney had advised him that, because of the board's clear direction in April, the committee must meet openly and its sessions must be properly advertised.
"It is a committee by the board, for the board, and therefore it is open to the public," Malcolm said.
He noted superintendent Wendy Tellone's desire to have the committee reach a decision by April, so the board can implement any changes it wants to make before summer vacation begins. Tellone had similar worries about late changes to the attendance zones when the board considered the issue last year.
"The superintendent is concerned about deadlines," Malcolm said. "The thing of it is, that deadline can be moved."
Neither he nor any of his colleagues who were reached Wednesday could explain why the staff set up the committee to meet outside the public eye. They said they were not informed that the committee even existed, or that it had met once in December.
But board member John Druzbick, who was chairman during last year's contentious debate about attendance zones, said he recalled specifically that the board asked for a committee with parents to make suggestions, using new computer software to help generate possible scenarios.
Druzbick still had some concerns, though, that some committee members might quit once their names become public and their meetings are open.
"Some people like a lot more privacy than that," he said.
He made similar arguments late last year when opposing a settlement with the Times, which had challenged the district over the proposed private meetings of a different committee. Tellone's administration had tried to keep the public out of meetings where a panel was to review the appropriateness of a Judy Blume novel for elementary school shelves.
The Times sued to prevent the challenged materials committee from meeting outside the public view. Gaffney disagreed with the paper's position, but acknowledged the policy was vague and advised the board to have its committee meet publicly.
The challenged materials committee is scheduled to meet at 3 p.m. Jan. 29 in the district board room.
The attendance zone review committee has not set a new meeting time. Malcolm said it will advertise the date at least a week in advance.
Attorney Bryan said she was pleased that the district will let people hear the debate, which drew so much attention a year ago.
"I'm just happy they clarified their position," Bryan said. "Hopefully, the minutes for the December closed-door meeting will be forthcoming for the public to review."
_ Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at (352) 754-6115 or solocheksptimes.com.