Wednesday, November 30, 2011

School board holding more closed meetings

Are executive sessions held in compliance with Idaho Open Meeting Law?


By TERRY SMITH
Express Staff Writer

The Blaine County School District board of trustees last month substantially increased its number of executive sessions, which are closed to the public.

Though the school board and district officials insist that the meetings are being held in accordance with Idaho law, they may conflict with guidelines issued by the Idaho Attorney General's Office regarding executive session notices and agendas.

The school board has convened into executive session seven times since the beginning of fiscal 2012 on July 1, with six of those meetings held in November. Regardless of claims by the board of transparency and openness with the public, meeting notices for all seven of the executive sessions did not state a specific purpose for the meetings.

"They're not required to on the notice," School District attorney Adam King said.

Instead of listing a specific purpose for executive sessions, meeting notices and agendas cite the regulatory authority for holding an executive session and use language directly from Idaho code to explain why the board is meeting. Thus, every notice about an executive session by the district board of trustees states that the purpose of the meeting is "to consider the evaluation, dismissal or disciplining of, or to hear complaints or charges brought against a public officer, employee, staff member or individual agent or public school student."

Open Meeting Law

Idaho's Open Meeting Law states that "the reason and specific provision of law authorizing the executive session" shall be stated in a meeting notice.

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence G. Wasden addresses meeting notice and agenda requirements in the newest Idaho Open Meeting Law Manual just released this month. Wasden states that meeting notices "must specifically set forth the purpose of the meeting and items of business" and "agenda items should be listed with specificity and not buried in catchall categories."

District Superintendent Lonnie Barber did not return a telephone call from the Idaho Mountain Express seeking comment on the issue by press deadline Tuesday. Instead, Barber issued the following written statement through district Communications Director Heather Crocker: "Based on the information the Blaine County School District has received, we are complying with the law in noticing closed executive session board meetings."

Board Chair Steve Guthrie was unavailable for comment. Instead, Board Vice Chair Don Nurge addressed the issue in an interview.

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"Looking at this, it's always been our intent to follow the law, and it appears that we are doing that with this notice on the closed executive sessions," Nurge said. "With that said, we are also sensitive to an individual's rights of privacy, especially if it involves a minor."

Neither Barber nor Crocker addressed two other questions asked by the Express: Why has the number of executive sessions increased so dramatically this month? And why has the policy regarding announcement of public meetings changed within the past year and a half?

Prior to the beginning of fiscal 2011, the school board stated specific reasons for holding executive sessions in its meeting notices and agendas. For example, a meeting notice for a June 9, 2010, executive session states that the board would hold three student expulsion hearings, without mentioning the names of the students involved.

Expulsion hearings

Student expulsion hearings have been the most common reasons for school board executive sessions. Of the seven sessions held this fiscal year, meetings on Nov. 3, Nov. 18, Nov. 21 and Nov. 22 were for expulsion hearings. A meeting on Nov. 4 involved a previously expelled student re-enrollment hearing, while meetings on Aug. 8 and Nov. 8 involved personnel issues.

Minutes from all seven meetings are available for public review on the School District website. Names are not used in executive sessions involving student expulsion hearings and personnel issues.

With the exception of not listing a specific reason for executive sessions, the school board is seemingly in compliance with all other provisions of the Idaho Open Meeting Law. As required by law, public notices are posted and provided to the news media at least 24 hours before a meeting, executive sessions are convened by vote of the board of trustees and official decisions are made only after the board reconvenes into open session. Minutes are also duly kept as required by law.

Trustee Paul Bates said Monday that he was not previously aware of any issues involving meeting notices and executive sessions.

"This is the very first that I've heard of this," Bates said. "If there is something that the board has not done as well as it could, and that has been brought to our attention, then I think we need to consider taking a look at it. And, if there's something we can do to improve our communications, our transparency and our outreach to the public, then that's a big part of our mission."

Terry Smith: tsmith@mtexpress.com




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