By Scott Bauer
MADISON, Wis. — The Wisconsin Supreme Court is to hear arguments in a case that could give school boards and other governmental bodies a way around the open meetings law.
The case up for argument Wednesday focuses on whether meetings of a committee created by employees of the Appleton Area School District to review books for use in a ninth grade class should have been open to the public.
More broadly the court will examine whether committees created in the same way that the one in Appleton was brought together allows them to be exempt from the law.
John Krueger, whose son attends the Appleton district, argued in a lawsuit that the review committee broke the state open meetings law by not posting a public notice of its meetings or allowing the public to attend. But the Waupaca County Circuit Court and state appeals court both sided with the district, setting up Krueger’s appeal to the state Supreme Court.
Krueger raised concerns in 2011 about references to suicide and sex in the book The Body of Christopher Creed that students in a freshman communications arts class read. Krueger requested that an alternative class be offered that included books that had no profanity, obscenities or sexualized content.
Appleton’s superintendent, Lee Allinger, asked two members of the district’s department that handles curriculum and instruction to respond to Krueger’s concerns. Those employees formed a 17-member committee including district administrators, teachers and staff to evaluate books used in the course.
The committee met for five months and forwarded a recommended list of 23 books that could be taught in the course. The school board adopted that list in 2012.
The issue for the Supreme Court to decide is whether a formal committee, created by school district officials and not the school board, is a “governmental body” subject to the open meetings law. That law refers only to “governmental bodies” created by the constitution, law, local ordinance or “rule or order.”
Krueger argued in filings with the court that governmental bodies could evade the open meetings law by having administrators, rather than the governing boards, create committees. The district argued that when a committee is created by school employees it is not created by “rule or order” of the governing body.
The lower courts sided with the school, determining that because the review committee was not created by a directive of the school board, the committee was not a “governmental body” subject to the open meetings law.
The Supreme Court ruling could establish a uniform rule for what it means for a governmental body to be created by “rule or order,” said Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a conservative law firm that is representing Krueger.
Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel, the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, the Wisconsin Newspapers Association and the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association all filed briefs in support of Krueger’s argument that the meetings were in violation of state law.
The Supreme Court is expected to issue its decision in the case later this year.