Teacher evaluation panel moves its work behind closed doors

After a contentious public meeting last week on developing a new teacher and principal evaluation system, the state Department of Education has closed its meetings on the topic to the public and the media.

Instead, a series of private "working group" meetings is scheduled to take place in the weeks before the panel's June 30 deadline to create a model process on evaluation under the new education reform law. The next public meeting is not until June 21, nine days before the panel is required to finish their work. The state Board of Education is expected to sign off on the evaluations shortly after that.

Asked if these "working group" meetings will be open to the public, Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor last week referred all questions to a State Department of Education spokesman, who declined to give notification of these meetings nor copies of its minutes.

At its first public meeting in three months, members of the Performance Evaluation Advisory Council last week butted heads on how much weight students' standardized test results should have when their teachers are evaluated.

The council had planned to reconvene Monday to begin to hash out a list of issues raised during the meeting, including the standardized tests issue and how many times teachers should be observed during the school year.

The education department cancelled Monday's meeting, however, and scheduled 10 private "working group" meetings instead, including one this morning on principal evaluations. The other groups set to meet in closed sessions this week include Implementation, Teacher Evaluation, Pupil Services and Observation.

An education department spokesman failed to respond to numerous requests for time, date and location of upcoming meetings. The Mirror received a copy of those meeting dates from a panel member.

The section of the Connecticut General Statutes commonly referred to as the Freedom of Information Act defines a meeting as "any hearing or other proceeding of a public agency, any convening or assembly of a quorum of a multimember public agency."

And though a meeting can include "any communication by or to a quorum of a multimember public agency" both the Freedom of Information Commission and state courts say the presence of a quorum isn't essential for a meeting to have occurred.

In an August 1989 decision involving the East Hartford Emergency Medical Services Commission, the state Appellate Court upheld the FOI Commission's finding that a subcommittee of the commission met illegally even though it involved less than a quorum of the full board.

"The plain language of General Statutes...[is that it] does not require a quorum as a necessary precondition to any hearing or other proceeding of a public agency," the appellate court wrote in its decision. "The legislature did not define a meeting as any hearing or proceeding of a quorum of a public agency."

A subcommittee can be engaged in a public proceeding under the law if multiple members gather "to discuss or act upon a matter over which the public agency has supervision, control, jurisdiction or advisory power."

This is not the first round of closed "working group" meetings the Department of Education has conducted in recent months. At the full public meeting last week, each working group leader gave presentations on decisions that already had been made.

The Mirror's requests for notification of these meetings and minutes have gone unanswered. Neither did the education department inform the Secretary of the State's Office of these meetings, as is required by the state Freedom of Information law.

Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, co-chairman of the legislature's Education Committee, said that while he can appreciate the need for this group to meet privately, he also understands it is bound by the state's FOI laws.

"There are times when it's hard to develop new models and reach agreement with everyone in the world looking on," the West Hartford Democrat said.

"If the Performance Evaluation Advisory Council has found that it needs smaller groups to meet privately, and if that does not comply with the Freedom of Information law, then they need to find a way to bring themselves in conformance... They need to follow the law or come to us and seek an exception."

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