FL officials hold closed meetings on logistics of opening schools, leaving the press and public in the dark

School entrance sign. Photo, CD Davidson-Hiers

Ten groups discussing how to best reopen Florida’s K-12 schools and colleges were closed to the press and public on Tuesday, raising questions about transparency as families try to manage a new academic year during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Florida Phoenix got a notice from the Florida Education Association, collaborating with the United Faculty of Florida, about forming committees and discussing the logistics of how to safely reopen Florida schools.

One committee covers K-12 education and the other, higher education. Each committee is divided into five subcommittees to highlight different goals of safely reopening schools in Florida.

However, the press was invited to attend only the first and third meetings, on May 21 and May 29, via Zoom.

The second meeting, held on Tuesday, was closed to the press and the public. Each subcommittee met for their own meetings.

A FEA spokesperson responded in an email to the Florida Phoenix that “the logistics of the small-group format via Zoom made us decide to not open today’s (Tuesday) sessions for live coverage.”

The email noted that because those meetings were “fact-finding” meetings, they’re not subject to Florida’s “Sunshine” laws. Those open meetings and public records laws are intended to insure transparency in government.

“We have opened up as much of the process as seemed feasible. We are understanding that not all must be open, given legal advice…,” according to FEA.

Barbara Petersen, former president of the First Amendment Foundation, said that the FEA is a private organization and therefore not subject to the Sunshine laws.

However, the K-12 group is composed of several public officials, ranging from city commissioners, school board members, and the superintendent of Leon County Schools.

State Rep. Kamia Brown, a Democrat representing part of Orange County, as well as Democratic State Sen. Janet Cruz, representing part of Hillsborough, are members of the K-12 committee.

The higher education committee includes Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, a Democrat representing part of Orange.

Despite a high number of public officials within the committees, they are not subject to Sunshine laws because they do not come from the same collegial body, according to Petersen.

Any discussion on current plans and concerns to reopen schools from the ten subcommittees are unavailable to the press at this time. The Phoenix requested notes from the second meetings, but none have been provided yet.

The first meetings were introductory meetings that introduced the participants in K-12 or higher education committees. Each committee has several subcommittees to discuss aspects for reopening schools, such as “social and emotional wellbeing” and “public health and safety.”

The third meeting, May 29, will be open to the press.

But the groups will be taking questions through email, raising questions about how the press can ask questions if they haven’t received information on the discussions.

The FEA said final recommendations on the reopening of schools will be presented June 2.

Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University, majoring in English with a focus in editing, writing, and media. While at FSU, she served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine, Nomadic Noles. Last fall, she fulfilled another editorial internship with Rowland Publishing, where she wrote for the Tallahassee Magazine, Emerald Coast Magazine, and 850 Business Magazine. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat. She spends her downtime traveling to all corners of Florida and beyond to practice lindy hop.