In an email sent to the Billings School District 2 board on Saturday, Superintendent Keith Beeman asked to meet individually with trustees to discuss the budget and contract negotiations with SD2's unions.
"I want to share with you some specific information regarding the budget and negotiations that we are not ready to share with the public," he wrote. "Doing so would hamper our ability to negotiate with the bargaining units."
Under state law, when a quorum of board members meets to discuss collective bargaining strategies, the meeting must be open to the public.
Mike Meloy, a Helena attorney and expert on freedom of information laws, questioned the wisdom of meeting individually with trustees.
"Meeting one-on-one to try to avoid the prohibition against having a closed meeting to discuss collective bargaining, technically that is not illegal," Meloy said.
But, he said, it clearly violates the spirit of the state's open meetings law and risks disenfranchising the public.
"The trust that the public and the union have in the process erodes when the superintendent sneaks around," he said.
At issue is the district's contract with its teachers union, which expired with the end of the school year.
The Billings Education Association announced in January that it would not seek negotiated raises for its teachers for the 2011-2012 school year. Rather, the union would take no increase and would wait a year to open contract negotiations with the district.
District officials and trustees disagreed with the union's position and insist the district will open negotiations this year with union officials to hammer out a new contract.
In his email, Beeman said he had met with the union's president, Jeff Greenfield, and the two had decided to meet and negotiate on salary only for the 2011-2012 school year.
"We also agreed that we should begin bargaining the full master agreement for 2012-2013 and beyond as early as possible in the fall," Beeman wrote.
Greenfield's office staff said he was out of town this week. Calls to his cellphone Tuesday were not returned.
Beeman's request to meet with board members individually gave some trustees pause. Others saw it as a reasonable request given the current climate in the district.
"My main concern was how legal is this," said trustee Lindy Graves.
Graves called board clerk Leo Hudetz to ask about the legality and Hudetz offered to look into the issue, Graves said.
Trustee Teresa Stroebe saw it as an effort on Beeman's part to get all the trustees on equal footing when it comes to issues facing the district.
"For me, personally, the public's right to participate is really important," she said.
In this case, if Beeman is attempting to get trustees all "on the same page" without the glare of public spotlight, that's probably alright, she said.
"I think everyone's trying to do the right thing," she said.
Trustee Greta Besch Moen said Beeman can discuss these matters individually or with the board in a public meeting and she had no preference.
"I don't have a problem either way," she said.
Trustee Connie Wardell said it's something trustees have asked of Beeman in the past, but this was the first time they'd seen a request.
For Wardell, it's a way for Beeman to get to know the trustees individually and to better understand their concerns for the district.
"That's all it is," she said.