Texas AG: Presidio ISD likely violated state transparency laws

PRESIDIO — It’s been an interesting few days for the school board at Presidio Independent School District.

The board met last Wednesday evening for what looked to be an eventful meeting. The board was considering employment renewals and the termination of at least one teacher: high school band director Molly Ferguson.

Ferguson submitted a resignation letter “for personal reasons” before the meeting, and in the end, “the board did not take any action or vote on any terminations,” Ray Vasquez, superintendent for Presidio ISD, said in an email. But the meeting was unfortunately still noteworthy for other reasons, after local school officials apparently violated rules on public meetings.

Like many events across the country during the coronavirus pandemic, the Presidio ISD meeting was broadcast online for those who wished to attend remotely. But when The Big Bend Sentinel attempted to tune in on Wednesday, a technical error stated there was no authorization to view the meeting. Others who tried to watch experienced the same issue.

Those technical issues appear to have been inadvertent. Superintendent Vasquez acknowledged as much in an email on Monday, saying it “has been a process to provide reliable technology connections” throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

“We will continue to improve our remote communication for all our meetings,” he added, apologizing for the technical issues.

That was only part of the story, though. When The Big Bend Sentinel later contacted Presidio school officials to obtain a recording of the meeting, those officials said no recording was available.

Instead, officials said minutes for the meeting would be available at a later date. At press time on Wednesday, those minutes were not yet published.

In light of the coronavirus pandemic, which has no doubt presented new challenges for public officials, the Texas attorney general’s office provided clarity on the most up-to-date open meetings requirements.

In general, public access to government meetings has been an enshrined part of American journalism for decades. Government meetings have largely been open to the public since 1967, when the Freedom of Information Act, a landmark transparency law, went into effect. Texas adopted its own version of the law in 1973, with the Texas Public Information Act.

A spokesperson for the Texas AG’s office said that some aspects of open meetings laws were affected by coronavirus. In March, Texas Governor Greg Abbott suspended parts of the law to allow public officials to meet virtually, in order to comply with social-distancing requirements.

Still, the spokesperson said, parts of state open meetings laws relating to transparency are still in effect. Meetings must be publicly accessible, she said, and any meetings held online must allow for two-way communication.

Most notably, the spokesperson also cited state guidance stating that “a recording of the meeting held by webinar or teleconference must still be made available to the public following the conclusion of the meeting.” But in the case of the Presidio meeting, no such recording apparently exists.

While all members of the Presidio school board were contacted for comment on the issue, only the superintendent provided a response.

Vasquez defended the board, noting that visitors could have attended the meeting not only over the internet, but also by phone — though no such call-in number was included on the meeting notice. And he cited the part of state meetings laws that reference meeting minutes.

“As a district, we prepare and keep minutes that state the subject of each deliberation, and indicate each vote, order, decision, or other action taken,” he said. “Once those minutes are approved at our next board meeting, then they will be posted and available for viewing on our district website.”

When pressed on the recording requirement for virtual meetings, Vasquez emphasized that the meeting was technically not “a virtual meeting.”

“We had all seven boardmembers physically present in the PISD boardroom,” he said.

Still, a spokesperson for the AG’s office stressed that the recording requirement applied to all public meetings and had not been suspended by Abbott’s emergency order.

For more information, the AG’s office advised contacting the local district attorney. The Presidio County District Attorney’s office did not respond to a request for comment by press time.