NORMAN — State Rep. Emily Virgin said that her bill extending public bodies’ executive session privileges is in its beginning stages and is subject to modification.
House Bill 1379, authored with school boards in mind, allows discussing self-evaluation procedures, strategy respecting school consolidation and knowledge that the board deemed potentially adverse to district finances in executive session.
The bill’s general terms regarding finance have raised concerns among critics who feel it leaves room for abuse and could demean transparency.
“I certainly don’t have a crystal ball about what the legislature is going to do, but this bill is the opposite of the trend over the past five years,” said Mark Thomas, Oklahoma Press Association executive vice president. “The terminology is very broad and could allow public bodies to take whatever they want into executive session.”
Public bodies’ current executive session privileges, as outlined in Title 25, Section 307, include discussion of personnel, property purchase, pending litigation involving the public body, specific students, security measures concerning facilities and information technology.
Virgin, D-Norman, said she’s well aware of the possibilities and will be addressing financial concerns in future drafts of the bill.
“(The current draft) is a starting point. It came from school board members around the state, and the financial language was not what we were going for,” Virgin said in an interview this week. “I’m certainly open to tweaks in the language.”
Virgin said the crux of HB 1379 dealt with discussion of school consolidation, a controversial problem for school boards in rural areas.
“School consolidation efforts were a big concern for rural school board members. These are very controversial in the communities and, while the board members wanted to discuss it with the public candidly, they felt they needed the option for executive session as well,” Virgin said.
Thomas said it’s common for constituents to suggest bill language based on specific incidents or concerns, though Virgin said she was unaware of any specific meeting disruptions or incidents regarding open discussion of school consolidation.
“(School consolidation) is not an issue in Norman, given the district’s size, but in small areas, it’s a real threat and I’m sure there have been problems for school boards there,” she said.
Regarding the financial language, Virgin expressed confidence that it will be changed.
“This is the first of a few drafts of legislation, and usually the first draft is not what goes through. I will be working extensively with the OSBA and related entities — we don’t want to start down a slippery slope.”