PORTLAND (AP) – Maine’s highest court Thursday struck down a judge’s ruling that required the Portland School Committee to allow a local newspaper to examine notes taken during an executive session last summer.

In its unanimous opinion, the Supreme Judicial Court concluded that the public was legitimately excluded from the 45-minute meeting and that notes taken by two committee members and the panel’s lawyer were not public records and need not be open to public inspection.

Blethen Maine Newspapers, owner of the Portland Press Herald, had sued the School Committee, alleging that it violated the state’s Freedom of Access law. A Superior Court judge last year sided with the newspaper, prompting the School Committee’s appeal.

The panel voted to go into executive session on July 25 at a time when Portland’s school department was wrestling with a $2.5 million budget shortfall that led to Superintendent Mary Jo O’Connor’s resignation the following month.

The session’s agenda included the questioning of O’Connor and other key officials about staff duties and responsibilities regarding financial management of the state’s largest school system.

When the newspaper’s suit was argued in Superior Court, school department witnesses said the meeting focused on personnel issues and cautioned that the reputation of some senior staff could be harmed if notes from the session were made public.

The judge, however, found that budget matters were discussed at the session, in violation of the open records law.

The supreme court disagreed, saying that although questions were raised as to how to address the financial shortfall, those questions were few and brief and were left unanswered.

“The notes taken during the session corroborate the testimony that neither the budget nor budget policy was discussed,” the law court said.

AP-ES-04-24-08 1418EDT

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