published Saturday, February 18th, 2012

Confusion surrounds closed school meeting

The Tennessee Department of Education and local officials haven't been able to pinpoint just who is responsible for moving a Thursday school board meeting behind closed doors.

The Hamilton County Board of Education met with school administrators and Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman after his address to the Chattanooga Rotary. They were discussing an upcoming grant that Hamilton County likely will apply for to start a School Innovation Zone, which would target low-performing schools by allowing greater flexibility in how schools operate.

A public notification was distributed before the meeting, as usually occurs with other board meetings.

But as the meeting was starting, reporters were told by Huffman spokeswoman Kelli Gauthier that the meeting was closed to the media because officials were discussing a competitive grant application. When asked, Gauthier couldn't cite the law that allowed them to circumvent the Tennessee Sunshine Law and close the meeting.

Gauthier addressed reporters and shut the door, but said she was only repeating information she'd been told. She said the decision to close the meeting was made by local officials.

"The commissioner had been invited to speak at the meeting, and it was neither his decision nor mine that it be closed," she said in a Friday email.

But Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith and school board Chairman Mike Evatt both said they didn't ask that the meeting be closed. On Thursday, Smith said Huffman made the call to hold the meeting behind closed doors.

Smith couldn't be reached for comment on Friday.

Evatt said he was under the impression that Gauthier, a former reporter for the Times Free Press, asked that the meeting be closed.

"All I did was walk into the room," he said. "I didn't close anything. We did not ask for it to be closed."

And the meeting didn't contain any confidential or sensitive discussion, Evatt said.

School board attorney Scott Bennett couldn't be reached for comment Thursday or Friday.

Kent Flanagan, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said state law is very restrictive when it comes to closed sessions of public bodies.

The Sunshine Law operates on a presumption of openness, he said.

"All meetings are open unless they can cite a specific statute that gives them legal reason to close it," he said. "There are only a handful of reasons why a school board can close a meeting."

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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