The new Facilities Task Force studying potential closure of Dayton Public Schools buildings canceled its initial meeting Tuesday morning after the members had already arrived.
At issue was a disagreement between Task Force members and local media about whether the meeting was open to the public under Ohio’s open meetings law.
Reporters from the Dayton Daily News and WHIO-TV, plus local activist and blogger David Esrati, arrived early for the 9:30 a.m. meeting, and were allowed to set up cameras and tables.
But as the meeting was about to start, DPS spokeswoman Marcia Bonhart asked the media to leave, saying the event was not open to the public. A Dayton Daily News reporter immediately presented a letter suggesting the meeting qualified as an open meeting under Ohio law.
Acting DPS Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli, Dayton City Manager Shelley Dickstein and Task Force co-chairs Mohamed Al-Hamdani and Jeff Mims scanned the document, then told the media they believed the meeting was closed to the public.
Charlie Russo, research professor of law at the University of Dayton, said the Task Force’s attempt to meet in private did not seem to fit the requirements of Ohio’s open meetings law.
“The spirit of the law, not just in Ohio but elsewhere, is that public business should be the business of the public. People should know what’s going on,” Russo said. He acknowledged that there are some exceptions allowing private meeting. “But none of those exceptions applied. I don’t believe they made the right call.”
“We are very open to public commenting, but the work of the Task Force right now is to digest some of this information and to have a safe place to have all kinds of conversations for making recommendations,” Dickstein said. “This is not a decision-making body.”
The Ohio Revised Code says open meetings law “shall be liberally construed to require public officials to take official action and to conduct all deliberations upon official business only in open meetings unless the subject matter is specifically excepted by law.”
Dickstein argued both that the Task Force did not qualify as a public body and that it would not conduct deliberations. The committee’s charge is to decide on a set of recommendations to Dayton’s school board on “right-sizing DPS facilities” and “positioning DPS for growth in enrollment,” according to Tuesday’s agenda.
“We’re going to ask you to leave and then you can challenge this later,” Mims told the media.
Bonhart and Al-Hamdani also told Esrati to leave, and he said he would not. Moments later, with a Dayton Daily News reporter and Esrati still standing in the room, Lolli canceled the meeting, and the task force members left.
“We’ll do a press release every time we do one of these meetings to inform you of everything,” Al-Hamdani said. “But I’d like to have a very honest discussion because we’re going to share a lot of ideas here, and I want to be comfortable with everything. These folks are all community members. They’re not a public body.”
The committee was scheduled to meet again Jan. 23 according to the agenda, but after the cancellation Lolli was noncommittal about whether that meeting would occur as scheduled. Bonhart was also cautious.
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“Apparently there is some discrepancy in reference to what is applicable to the Sunshine Law (open meetings law) and what is not,” Bonhart said, also citing a desire to respect Task Force members’ time. “Until all those items are worked out, we’ll have another discussion at another time.”
This news organization had sent text messages Monday night to the Task Force co-chairs and emails early Tuesday morning to Dayton Public Schools officials, asking for confirmation of the meeting, but received no response before the meeting was to begin at 9:30 a.m.
Dayton Public Schools had originally planned four open community meetings this month to discuss the issue of potential school closures. But those meetings have been moved back to March to allow the task force to study the issue first. The 16-member Task Force includes school district officials, members of city government and other community leaders.
Staff Writer Sean Cudahy contributed to this report.