School district admits improper discussion in a closed-door meeting

The Broward School Board improperly discussed the purchase of software during a closed-door meeting, the district acknowledges, the latest in a series of blunders related to secret meetings.

The School Board met in a closed session on April 11 to discuss an audit of the software AppliTrack, which is used to manage job applications. On May 9, the School Board voted in public session to terminate without cause the contract of Frontline Technology Group, which makes the AppliTrack software. The three-year contract was supposed to expire June 30, 2024, but the School Board voted to end it a year early.

While the school district says most of the April 11 meeting was allowed to be closed under a cyber-security exemption in Florida statutes, one of the audit findings related to a questionable procurement method — or the purchasing of goods or services — used 10 years ago when the software was first secured. The South Florida Sun Sentinel learned of the audit meeting through public records and questioned why it was held behind closed doors.

“Upon further analysis of a closed-door session (April 11, 2023) of the School Board regarding an audit, it was determined that a discussion involving one of the audit findings should have occurred during a public meeting,” district spokesman John Sullivan said in a statement.

“We sincerely apologize to the public for discussing this finding during a closed-door session that should have been addressed during an open meeting,” Sullivan said. “The District fully understands the importance of transparency and open dialogue. Enhanced protocols are being implemented to ensure more safeguards in the future.”

Sullivan said “the General Counsel, Chief Auditor, and subject matter experts will sign off on all closed-door sessions to include a finding-by-finding analysis for audit items.”

Sunshine Law violations can be cured, or resolved, by recreating the discussions at an open meeting. Sullivan said the district will present the audit, “Information Technology Auditing and Controls of the Applicant Recruitment Application: AppliTrack Software” at the Aug. 3 meeting and to the School Board in September.

It’s unclear if the discussion could affect the School Board’s May 9 vote to terminate the AppliTrack contract, which was unanimously approved with little discussion.

“I would strongly suggest they hold that vote again. It’s tainted, and the only way to cure it is to take independent final action in the Sunshine,” said Barbara Petersen, a lawyer and Sunshine Law expert who runs the nonprofit Florida Center for Government Accountability.

Even though the closed-door meeting held four weeks prior was about the AppliTrack audit, Sullivan insists “the termination of the contract with AppliTrack had nothing to do with the closed-door audit meeting.”

He said AppliTrack was replaced by a new product, SAP SuccessFactors, “independent of the findings from the audit.”

A spokesperson for Frontline Technology Group, the vendor for AppliTrack, couldn’t be reached Monday, despite attempts by email.

The April 11 closed-door meeting happened the same day the School Board held a second secret meeting to discuss proposals for clear backpacks and mandatory uniforms, topics many lawyers and open meetings experts say were improper for a closed-door session.

A month later, on May 16, the School Board briefly discussed a personnel investigation in a closed-door session, which is not allowed, according to an email exchange between Board member Sarah Leonardi and General Counsel Marylin Batista. In the email exchange, Batista said she would sign off on issues being proposed for closed-door meetings beforehand to ensure they comply with the Sunshine Law.

Still, school district officials maintained they never violated the Sunshine Law.

“ALL board meetings (closed doors included) follow all board policies and state laws,” Sullivan said in a June 8 statement. “Additionally, if an item is brought up in a closed-door session that is not permissible, our General Counsel immediately stops the item before it’s discussed. Therefore, it won’t be a violation of the Sunshine Law.”

When School Board member Brenda Fam questioned June 20 whether the School Board had violated the Sunshine Law with the clear backpack and school uniform discussions, Batista said no.

“The district, the board has never violated the Sunshine Law, as far as I’m aware,” Batista responded at the meeting.

The Sun Sentinel learned about the closed-door AppliTrack audit meeting through unrelated public records requests of emails.

In an April 3 email, Chief Auditor Joris Jabouin asked Procurement Director Mary Coker if she can discuss a procurement issue at a closed-door meeting scheduled for 11 a.m. April 11. Minutes of an internal meeting on April 3, attached to another email, revealed the topic of the meeting was AppliTrack.

The Sun Sentinel questioned June 26 why the AppliTrack procurement was an appropriate discussion for a closed-door meeting. Sullivan sent an email July 14 acknowledging the topic was improper. He also provided a 28-page transcript of the April 11 meeting, with all but five pages entirely or mostly redacted.

At 5:55 p.m. Monday, he provided a new version of the audit, with only the one public finding included.

The Audit shows that school district policy requires competitive bids for any purchases of $50,000 or more. But from June to August 2013, school district officials at the time circumvented that by purchasing the software and two future year renewals in three payments of just under $50,000. Two payments were for $46,500 each and a third was for $47,550. District policy also requires School Board approval for contract renewals.

According to the closed-door meeting transcript, board member Torey Alston asked if the problems could happen again. Jabouin responded that there’s a “different control environment” under Coker, who started in 2016.

“We have policies and procedures against what we saw” in the audit finding, Jabouin said in the meeting. “And so it wasn’t supposed to happen in 2013, and it’s not supposed to happen in 2023.”