School district ‘inadvertently’ violates Freedom of Information Act

Superintendent Kevin Smith addressed a Freedom of Information (FOI) complaint filed Feb. 17 by resident Alex Ruskewich against the Board of Education, Wilton Public School District and Miller-Driscoll’s Preschool Planning Committee during the Board of Education’s Dec. 21 meeting.

Ruskewich’s complaint, FIC 2017-0637, alleged that the school district failed to:

  • Comply with a Feb. 6 request he made for documents in a timely manner; and

  • Properly notice preschool planning committee meetings.

A special hearing regarding Ruskewich’s complaint was held by the Connecticut FOI Commission in Hartford on Dec. 12.

At the hearing, Smith wrote in a letter addressed to the Board of Education, it was “demonstrated” that the district received Ruskewich’s Feb. 6 request, “acknowledged” it two days later, and that “the district transmitted 174 pages of records” on March 6.

“In conversation with the hearing officer, Mr. Ruskewich wound up withdrawing [the first] allegation,” Smith told the education board.

As for the second allegation, Smith said he testified that the district had “inadvertently violated the Freedom of Information Act.”

Prior to the complaint, Smith wrote, he was “unaware that non-Board of Education, administrative committees required public noticing.”

When he received the complaint, Smith said, he called legal counsel and learned that because the committee included members that were not paid district employees and he, as superintendent, had requested the formation of the committee, that the committee was subject to “the same notification and noticing procedures as the Board of Ed and Board of Ed committee meetings.”

“That’s an area of the law, in canvassing my colleagues, that is not widely known or widely understood,” he told the board.

Smith explained in his letter that in the summer of 2016, he asked Miller-Driscoll Principal Kathy Coon and preschool coordinator Bernadette Hess to “pull a committee together to review our current preschool program, examine research and best practices, visit preschool programs in area towns and develop recommendations.”

The preschool planning committee they formed was comprised of school staff, one parent and a Board of Education member — Laura Schwemm.

In a Feb. 15, 2016 email, however, Schwemm told The Bulletin she was “not a member” of the planning committee, but was a Board of Education “liaison to the group.”

“I attended the first meeting,” she wrote. “[Board of Education] observers/liaisons are not members of the groups they observe.”

The Bulletin reached out to Smith for comment on Schwemm’s role on the planning committee but has yet to hear back.

Since learning “the requirements,” Smith wrote, he has “reviewed the other district committees that may be subject to the same public meeting notice requirements and directed appropriate personnel to notice those meetings.”

“We began the process of noticing those meetings like we notice our Board of Ed meetings,” he said at the Dec. 21 meeting.

“Going forward, we have some cleanup to do and we’re in the process of going through now and posting the agendas and minutes of the preschool committee and other types of committee meetings.”

Smith added that he recently learned that his meetings with PTA presidents also “fall under that” — “which I never in a million years would have guessed,” he said.

“I’m not sure if any superintendent knows that,” said Smith, “but we’re going take the next couple months and back and post the minutes and agendas. Everything will be up on BoardDocs.”

Smith said the Freedom of Information Commission will “probably fine” the district for violating that provision of the FOI Act.

Connecticut FOI Commission Public Education Officer Tom Hennick told The Bulletin that the hearing officer will “write decision” based on the “facts and testimony” from the Dec. 12 hearing, but it will take “a while.”

“I think it’s a good lesson learned,” said Board of Education member Deborah Low, “but I also compliment our superintendent for being so upfront and transparent, and making the improvements as soon as possible.”