In explaining his call for individual meetings with Billings School District 2 trustees to share "specific information regarding the budget and negotiations," Superintendent Keith Beeman said he simply did not choose his words well.
"I didn't deliver the message I intended," he said. "I just wasn't very sensitive in my word choice."
Beeman sent an email to trustees on June 18 requesting one-on-one meetings to present information "we are not ready to share with the public."
Under state law, when a quorum of board members meets to discuss collective bargaining strategies, the meeting must be open to the public.
But he and many of the trustees said that rather than a private meeting to discuss negotiation strategies, the meetings are simply an invitation for trustees to sit down and pick Beeman's mind.
"There's nothing illegal about a meeting (like that)," said Barbara Bryan, board chairwoman. Boards and superintendents all across Montana do it all the time, she said.
However, the email invoked language that described meetings potentially more surreptitious than transparent.
"It was an unfortunate choice of words," Bryan said.
And, she said, it was not a "correct characterization" of what the meetings have been or will be.
In 2002, before Bryan was on the board, she sued SD2 for information the district hadn't made public regarding the closing of three of its schools.
The case went all the way to the state Supreme Court, where justices ruled unanimously in her favor. In the process, Bryan became an outspoken advocate statewide for Montana's open meetings laws.
Given that Beeman said the meetings are a chance for him and the trustees to get to know each other better, Bryan doesn't see a corollary between her experience in 2002 and the proposed one-on-one chats now.
"I don't think this situation is comparable at all," she said.
Beeman and the trustees said the idea for the one-on-one meetings came from a recent board retreat, where trustees were advised to sit down individually with the superintendent to improve board/administration communication.
And if that's all these proposed meeting are, said Trustee Travis Kemp, then he's all for them.
"I've never sat down with him one-on-one," he said. "I've never had that opportunity."
Kemp said he'd like to find out more about Beeman's plans, ideas and thoughts on how to improve the district and looks forward to sitting down with him to talk it through.
Trustee Connie Wardell has met already with Beeman. She said it was a productive chat in which he answered her questions about the budget and the direction of the district.
For Wardell, now is the time to move the district forward in a way that will help it become economically stable. And that will take a lot of effort, she said.
"We are working really hard," she said.
Trustee Pam Ellis said she was contacted by Beeman's office Thursday requesting a meeting.
"I said absolutely not," she said.
She believes the chats are questionable and she will use the board meetings as her venue to question the superintendent to get the information she needs.
"I just want information so I can make decisions," she said.