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Lawsuit threat forces Missouri to open a teacher retention commission meeting

The Missouri State Board of Education’s Teacher Recruitment and Retention Blue Ribbon Commission's inaugural meeting was initially not going to be open to members of the public.
Jon Cherry
Getty Images
The Missouri State Board of Education’s Teacher Recruitment and Retention Blue Ribbon Commission's inaugural meeting was initially not going to be open to members of the public.

Under the threat of a lawsuit, the state education department late Thursday reversed plans to close the doors on the first meeting of a commission appointed to study teacher recruitment and retention.

The initial closing raised concerns from some lawmakers who serve on the commission and the Missouri National Education Association. They worried the plan to hold a closed meeting of the Teacher Recruitment and Retention Blue Ribbon Commission was a potential violation of Missouri’s Sunshine Law.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education had said on its website the meeting would be closed to the public and that reports and summaries generated for the four scheduled meetings, “will be available approximately two weeks after each session.” The commission was appointed in April by the State Board of Education.

Mallory McGowin, a spokeswoman for the department, known as DESE, responded to The Independent’s inquiry about the closed meeting shortly after 6 p.m. Thursday to report doors would remain open for the public to observe.

“We were threatened with a a lawsuit,” McGowin said. “Time and resources are best spent working to solve the issues around teacher recruitment and retention.”

The department declined to name who threatened to sue, citing the potential pending litigation.

Prior to DESE’s reversal, Sen. Lauren Arthur, a Kansas City Democrat who serves on the commission, had said she wanted the body to entertain a motion to make it open to the public.

“At best the perception is bad,” Arthur said. “And at worst, it’s possible that this group could be breaking the Sunshine Law.”

Unable to attend the inaugural meeting herself, Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin, a Shelbina Republican who also serves on the commission, said she was even informed she couldn’t send her legislative assistant to go in her place.

“What is a blue ribbon committee if people can’t hear the good and the bad and then we all try to make it better?” O’Laughlin said, later adding: “I feel like the meeting should be an open meeting.”

Mark Jones, a spokesman for the Missouri National Education Association, said DESE argued the commission is not subject to Missouri’s open meetings law. The department argued those meeting tomorrow are a “working group” that would not constitute a quorum of the commission, Jones said.

Missouri’s open records law includes in its definition of a “public governmental body,” advisory committees created “for the specific purpose of recommending, directly to the public governmental body’s governing board or its chief administrative officer, policy or policy revisions or expenditures of public funds…”

After the department opened the meeting, DESE provided a public meeting notice that stated tomorrow’s meeting was being held with less than 24-hours notice “due to the need for further review of the composition of the committee.”

Rep. Ingrid Burnett, a Kansas City Democrat who serves on the commission, said she spoke to Commissioner of Education Margie Vandeven this week, who indicated there was strong will among the conveners that members be allowed to speak freely without fear of being under the public’s microscope.

“Why wouldn’t this be a decision that we make as a whole group?” Burnett said. “I think it’s also troubling. I think it gives an uneven balance of power.”

The 22-member commission includes 10 business leaders, four state lawmakers, three board of education members, staff from the governor’s office and DESE and two teachers and board of education president.

The commission addresses the state board’s top legislative priority to improve teacher recruitment and retention and is tasked with issuing a set of recommendations to the board by October.

The issue was also one of Gov. Mike Parson’s top priorities this past session, and lawmakers included funding in the state budget to raise teachers’ salaries to $38,000 and restart the Career Ladder program to boost pay of experienced teachers.

Jones said MNEA was grateful that the issue has garnered attention and is the focus of policy discussions, but stressed it’s important for teachers to be able to share their perspectives and information on the issues discussed.

“I think what’s concerning though, educators and teachers so often have things happen to them, and policy happen to them rather than in collaboration with them,” Jones said. “And there’s a concern that they’re not going to be listened to about an issue that is reportedly, specifically about retaining and recruiting them.”

Lawmakers serving on the committee said the issue of teacher recruitment and retention is a crisis that needs tackling.

“They’ve left the field because they don’t feel like they’re being supported, whether it be by the school district or the community,” said Rep. Brad Pollitt, a Sedalia Republican serving on the committee.

To adequately address it requires ensuring teachers across Missouri feel heard, O’Laughlin said.

“I think if we’re going to try to find an answer to that, we just have to make it where people have buy-in, they feel they’ve been included, and if they’ve got something that needs to be heard, they feel it’s been heard,” O’Laughlin said. “I just feel that’s the best way to solve issues.”

Related Event

What: Teacher Recruitment and Retention Blue Ribbon Commission meeting

When: 8 a.m. Friday, June 17, 2022

Where: Governor Office Building 200 Madison Street Jefferson City, MO 65101

This story was originally published by the Missouri Independent, part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Missouri Independent maintains editorial independence.

Copyright 2022 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Tessa Weinberg