ED-WATCH: SCHOOL BOARD MEMBERS CAUGHT IN MIDDLE - Closing Public Dialogue

(12/01/2008)

By Dianne Weaver

School boards and school systems, not unlike other WV institutions, continue to "lawyer-up" and close themselves off to the public.

Doing the public's business out-of-sight of the public has become commonplace in government and many political sub-divisions, upon the advice of "our attorney."

School systems, under pressure of state regulations and legal decisions, continue to distance themselves from the public, including school boards who mostly march to the orders of the state's educational system.

School board members are often caught in the middle.

In recent months at a Calhoun School Board meeting, the delegation portion of the public meeting wasn't over a possible exchange between board members and the speakers, it was when the board denied two community members the right to speak during the public portion of the meeting.

The board president told the individuals they must go into executive session to discuss their concerns, apparently because the issue could become part of a lawsuit.

Both parties released their concerns to the media.

Recently, in Wheeling, Jim Jorden wanted to ask a question and Erik Schramm warned him to stop. Both men are members of the Ohio County Board of Education.

Jorden started to ask union representatives a question during the delegations portion of the meeting.

Schramm, an attorney, told Jorden that questions to those addressing the board was not allowed, indicating it could lead to legal problems.

Jorden said "I feel as a board member ... I deserve the right to ask a clarifying question. It caught me off guard."

The union representatives were talking about funding for pay raises related to Senate Bill 541, a Legislative initiative that is supposed to be used to bolster the pay of local teachers and service personnel workers.

Jorden said he had contacted Howard O'Cull, executive director of the West Virginia School Boards Association, to provide a ruling.

Superintendent Lawrence Miller said Ohio County Schools does have some policies and regulations pertaining to comment before board meetings, but nothing that prohibits a board member from asking a question.

Schramm said board members receive training on such matters, and members are cautioned against talking to or asking questions of people who speak during the delegations portion of a meeting.

Schramm said it is meant to protect the board from potential legal action. "This isn't new to anyone on the board," he said.

To speak directly to a member of the public during the meeting, Schramm says that person should be placed on the agenda under a certain topic, not under delegations.

That is in dispute by the WV Ethics Commission.

Earlier, Kanawha County School Board President Jim Crawford told board members they can't have discussions during meetings that aren't on the agenda, particularly before or with the public.

Kanawha County school board members are allowed to ask questions during meetings but can't have in-depth discussions about subjects that aren't on their agenda, according to an advisory opinion issued by the state Ethics Commission.

That position runs counter to a rule instated by Kanawha County School Board President Jim Crawford.

Crawford announced that board members could no longer freely engage in discussions with members of the public, and that they can't ask questions unless they previously place them on the agenda.

In the past, members had been able to speak freely during a delegations segment of each meeting that offered a wide-open, back-and-forth exchange between officials and the public.

Crawford said he was advised about potential legal issues that could arise from such discussions while he was at a school board training session in Wheeling.

Board member Pete Thaw spoke out against the procedural change, calling it another way to limit the public's access to the board.

The state ethic's committee said board meeting agendas should detail each matter that will require immediate and official action from the board.

That does not mean, however, that members can't ask questions - of one another, of members of the public or the superintendent and other school officials - about other topics, the opinion said.

Still, most school boards in West Virginia are operating under cautionary to distance their discussion away from the public during meetings.

"The Open Meetings Act does not prohibit Board Members from asking questions of the Superintendent and his or her staff in order to obtain information regarding matters within the scope of the school system's operations," the ethic's opinion said.

"This same general rule applies to Board Members asking questions of citizens, employees or representative who speak during a public comment period."

"In certain instances, further questioning may be needed so that board members are able to understand or clarify the speaker's position or otherwise discern the speaker's concerns."

The opinion does say board members should be cautious about where such discussion might lead.

"If the questioning involves a subject which is not on the agenda, the board members are not permitted to deliberate among themselves toward a decision on that matter."

"Board members may discuss purely logistical issues such as whether a particular matter which has been raised during a question period requires official action, if it should be placed on the agenda for a future meeting, and when to schedule a meeting."

Kanawha officials said it's up to the board president whether (discussion) is headed toward deliberation that could cause problems.


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