Randy Evans, executive director
Iowa Freedom of Information Council
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There has been a lot of talk lately about why Iowa’s K-12 school districts need to be more transparent, and more accessible and more accountable, to parents and the rest of the tax-paying people of Iowa.
That is the justification offered for a bulging backpack full of bills introduced in the Legislature this year.
But lawmakers should not stop with their push for improved transparency in schools.
There are bills before the Legislature this year that would require a monitoring camera be installed in every classroom, online lists of every book in every school library and every book used in every classroom assignment, posting of teachers’ lesson plans and resource materials online months in advance, new criminal charges for teachers and school librarians who put sexually inappropriate books into the hands of students, and another bill that would create what is called the Parents Bill of Rights.
Leaders in the Iowa House and Senate have nixed some of these bills. But a proposal is not truly dead until lawmakers finish their work for the year. I will leave it to you readers to decide whether these proposals are good ideas or not.
But as long as lawmakers are exploring ways to make government more accountable and more open to citizen oversight, there’s another part of Iowa government that would benefit from this desire to bring more “sunshine” to the state’s K-12 school districts.
The Legislature should require itself to follow the same laws that cities, counties, public school districts and state executive branch agencies now must follow that guarantee citizen access to their meetings and their records.
An Iowa school board cannot vote on a contract to buy those little bottles of milk for school lunches without first posting the agenda for its meeting a minimum of 24 hours in advance. That proposed contract is available for review by anyone who asks to see it.
If a majority of the members of the school board gather to discuss and deliberate on policies for the district, that gathering has to be open to the public.
In contrast, the Legislature gets to decide how much, or how little, advance notice to give for meetings of its subcommittees and committees before members vote on a particular legislative bill — such as those requiring more transparency by K-12 school districts.
This year, for example, some widely anticipated bills have been introduced late in the afternoon, with the first vote scheduled for 8 a.m. the next day. And some bills have been cleared through the entire committee process and are ready for a vote by the full House or full Senate less than 24 hours after being introduced.
Lawmakers defend that small window of advance notice by talking about how it would reduce their flexibility and tie their hands if they had to provide more notice to the tax-paying public.
Except for few limited situations involving confidential matters, a local school board must allow the public to attend whenever more than half of its members gather to discuss school business.
In contrast, members of the Iowa House or Iowa Senate belonging to the same political party can go behind closed doors for private discussions on any topic, including proposals that affect every taxpayer.
If you want to see the correspondence sent to the local school superintendent or members of the local school board by groups on all sorts of controversial topics, the public records law allows you to submit a request for those letters and emails.
But if you want to see the correspondence sent to senators and representatives by well-funded interest groups or business executives, save your stamp. There is no use asking, because lawmakers are not required to share that.
The Legislature does not have to follow those requirements in the open meetings law for one simple reason: It chose to exempt itself when lawmakers wrote the state’s open meetings law 40+ years ago. The Legislature also chooses not to follow the open records law.
This loophole deprives the people of Iowa of adequate time to study and carefully analyze proposals that are moving through the House and Senate.
This loophole keeps the public in the dark — about the grease that is being applied, and by whom, to hasten passage of some piece of legislation, or to torpedo its passage.
These “sunshine” laws are an important foundation for our government in Iowa. These laws enable citizens to understand the basis and rationale of decisions their governments make, as well as those decisions themselves, even though the requirements may cause inconvenience and embarrassment for officials.
As long as lawmakers are interested in bringing more transparency to the operation of Iowa’s 327 public school districts, let’s not stop there. Let’s throw open the drapes of the Legislature and let more of that sunshine into the legislative chambers, too.
Randy Evans is executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. He can be reached at IowaFOICouncil@gmail.com.