IDEA Public Schools filed a lawsuit against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton last month, attempting to block the release of videos that reveal what board members discussed in public meetings.
The Progress Times filed a public information request in November for videos of IDEA Finance Committee meetings. IDEA, however, claimed that portions of the videos are covered by attorney-client privilege — even though the discussions took place during public meetings.
“IDEA should be working with the public to release all requested documents, not filing lawsuits in Austin against the State of Texas fighting to keep their dealings secret,” state Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, said in a statement. “Public records are key to holding our leaders accountable, and they help our community make informed decisions about our democracy. Without transparency, there are no consequences for government waste or for questionable decision-making.”
The lawsuit isn’t anything new for IDEA, which also sued the Attorney General’s Office to block the release of expense reports filed by top executives and records that may explain why the charter school purchased a boutique hotel in Cameron County.
With a $966 million budget and more than 70,000 students, Weslaco-based IDEA is among the nation’s largest charter schools.
IDEA is governed by a board of directors, which sets policy and supervises district administrators.
Members of the board also serve on committees. The IDEA board had at least seven committees in 2022, including the Finance Committee, the Academic Committee and the Governance Committee.
The committees frequently review information and make recommendations before the full board meets to discuss a topic.
In 2020 and 2021, when IDEA parted ways with several executives accused of improper spending, questions surfaced about how much the board knew.
The Progress Times filed a public information request for videos of all Finance Committee meetings from January 2018 to January 2020.
“In working to prepare recordings for release, IDEA observed that portions of each meeting consisted of management or the committee requesting legal advice from IDEA’s legal counsel to the Finance Committee,” according to a letter IDEA sent to the Attorney General’s Office on Feb. 10.
IDEA claimed the discussions “constitute legal advice that is protected by the attorney-client privilege.”
The Attorney General’s Office rejected that argument.
“We note the submitted information consists of video recordings of public meetings,” according to a letter ruling from the Attorney General’s Office dated April 26. “Recordings of a governmental body’s public meetings are specifically made public under the Open Meetings Act.”
IDEA responded by filing a lawsuit against the Attorney General’s Office on May 27.
In the lawsuit, IDEA argued the Finance Committee meetings aren’t covered by the Texas Open Meetings Act.
“IDEA’s Finance Committee was a standing committee that did not consist of a quorum of IDEA Board members; various members of IDEA’s management team would also participate in these meetings,” according to the lawsuit. “Thus, such Finance Committee meetings were not meetings of IDEA’s governing body, as the Finance Committee did not have final authority to supervise or control public business or public policy.”
That argument, however, appears to conflict with how IDEA described the Finance Committee on meeting agendas.
“If, during the course of the meeting, discussion of any item on the agenda should be held in an Executive or Closed Session, the Board will convene in such Executive or Closed Session in accordance with the Open Meetings Act, Texas Government Code, Section 551.071, 551.072, and 551.074,” according to a Finance Committee meeting agenda IDEA posted in July 2018. “While some directors will join via videoconference, either a quorum will be physically present at the posted location or the presiding officer will be physically present in accordance with the Open Meetings Act, Texas Government Code, Section 551.127.”
The same language appeared on Finance Committee meeting agendas in 2019 and 2020.
While the Finance Committee meetings were open to the public, IDEA argued the attorney-client privilege remained intact because no members of the public actually showed up.
“No other persons outside of the attorney-client privilege were participating,” according to the lawsuit, “and it was not understood that recordings were being made.”
Attorney Bill Aleshire of Austin, an expert on government transparency laws, predicted the judge would side with IDEA.
“Had this been an actual board meeting, and they did not formally go into executive session to hear their attorney’s advice, they would have waived the privilege and the video would be subject to disclosure,” Aleshire said in an email. “Likewise, had there been anyone at the Finance Committee meeting who was not a school employee or official, they would have waived attorney-client privilege by letting that outside, non-client person hear the attorney’s advice.”