Did the Monroe County Community School Corp. board violate with the Indiana Open Door Law by discussing a leadership team proposal in a Dec. 7 executive session?
Both the state public access counselor and the school board’s own attorney, writing in response to a complaint from Support Our Schools organizer Eric Knox, seem to have said that such a discussion is not allowed. Yet the board apparently not only discussed the proposal but decided to reject it and to come up with an alternative in the closed-door meeting.
And that’s why the board will be having yet another executive session on Tuesday, its sixth in the past month – this one to discuss strategy with respect to a threatened lawsuit over violation of the Open Door Law.
To recap, the proposal made in November by the MCCSC’s instructional leadership team called for having the 25-member team, made up of school principals and the directors of elementary and secondary education, serve as interim leader while the board seeks a replacement for Superintendent J.T. Coopman, who is retiring.
After getting feedback from the school board, the instructional leadership team revised its proposal, suggesting that a three-person executive serve as interim leader with support from the other 22 team members.
The school board never discussed the revised proposal in public. But board president Jeannine Butler told the team on Dec. 14 that the board declined the offer. Instead, it appointed retired school administrator Tim Hyland to serve as MCCSC interim superintendent, a position he previously held in 2008-09. Butler said the board would establish a committee of four principals to advise him.
Questioned about the decision, Butler said she believed the board had decided to reject the leadership team proposal during the executive session on Dec. 7.
Butler’s statements were made Dec. 14 at a work session and regular meeting, both of which can be viewed online at the Community Access Television Services website. You can read the revised proposal from the instructional leadership team on a Support Our Schools discussion forum.
Meanwhile, Knox had filed his complaint with the public access counselor on Dec. 7, seeking guidance on the legality of the executive session that the board would conduct later that day. The supposed reason for the executive session was to “receive information about and interview prospective employees.”
Public Access Counselor Andrew Kossack ruled that the MCCSC had violated the Open Door Law by announcing an incorrect reason for the executive session — essentially, on a technicality.
But Kossack also said the Open Door Law wouldn’t allow the board to meet in executive session to discuss what he understood to be the instructional leaders’ proposal. “As to whether the Board may meet in executive session to discuss whether to appoint a current employee as acting superintendent and chair of an executive committee, in my opinion the ODL does not provide that authority,” he wrote.
And MCCSC attorney Tom Bunger (who wasn’t present at the Dec. 7 executive session) wrote the following in response to Knox’s complaint: “The School Corporation recognizes that, if they were to consider the proposal to appoint an Executive Committee of principals and curriculum directors to operate the School Corporation, that this situation could not be discussed in an Executive Session …”
Knox, after the school board ignored the “warning shot” of his public-access complaint, is considering legal action. That’s presumably the threatened litigation that is the subject of the school board’s executive session on Tuesday. If Knox were to prevail, a judge could nullify any school board decision resulting from an illegal meeting, arguably including the appointment of Hyland as interim superintendent.
The Indiana legislature, in adopting the Open Door Law, declared that “the intent of this chapter that the official action of public agencies be conducted and taken openly, unless otherwise expressly provided by statute, in order that the people may be fully informed.”
Here’s a suggestion for the school board: The best strategy is to follow not just the letter but the spirit of the Open Door Law and to do the public’s business in public unless going behind closed doors is absolutely necessary.