MCCSC closed-door meeting would be contrary to Open Door Law

The Monroe County Community School Corp. board plans to hold a closed-door meeting next Tuesday to discuss the next steps for hiring a superintendent, according to the Bloomington Herald-Times.

That would almost certainly be against the law. There is no provision in the Indiana Open Door Law that allows secret executive sessions to discuss how to conduct a superintendent search.

The public notice for the executive session says the board will meet to “receive information about prospective employees,” i.e., candidates to take the place of Superintendent J.T. Coopman, who is retiring at the end of the year. If that’s all the board does, it would be OK to meet in secret.

But MCCSC board member Valerie Merriam told the H-T that the board intends “to decide what kind of committee to go with this time, whether that involves lots of community members or we go with a professional search (firm) … I think all those things will be hammered out next Tuesday.”

Steve Key, executive director and general counsel with the Hoosier State Press Association, who knows the Open Door Law as well as anyone, told School Matters that he can’t think of an exception that would allow discussing the process of a superintendent search in a closed-door meeting.

Could the school board close the meeting if, along with other business, it might receive information about superintendent candidates? No, it can’t. The law requires board members who attend an executive session to certify that “no subject matter was discussed in the executive session other than the subject matter specified in the public notice.”

Furthermore, Key said, meeting in secret to plan the details of a superintendent search is just a bad idea.

“I don’t know why they would want to be secretive about the process of hiring someone for such an important position,” he said.

In fact the MCCSC board should know well that secrecy undermines public trust. Early this year, the board appeared to be meeting in private to decide how to cut $5.8 million in funding. It held closed meetings purportedly to discuss collective bargaining strategy. But strategy doesn’t encompass deciding to eliminate librarians, lay off teachers and do away with stipends for extracurricular duties.

When the cuts were announced, with the appearance that they were a done deal and not open to further debate, at least part of the public appropriately responded with outrage.

It will be enough of a challenge for the MCCSC to identify and attract an effective leader to take Coopman’s place. Whoever gets the job shouldn’t have his or her selection tainted by a search process that was designed in secret.

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