Billings Public Schools Superintendent Keith Beeman recently notified trustees that he wants to meet with them privately “to share with you some specific information regarding the budget and negotiations that we are not ready to share with the public.”
Under Montana’s constitution and open-records laws, any school district information about the budget is public information as soon as it exists.
Montana citizens cannot be made to wait for public information until the superintendent or trustees are ready to release it.
On Wednesday, Gazette reporter Rob Rogers requested that Beeman send him the information that he will share with trustees. Beeman replied by emailing Rogers a spreadsheet that has been discussed previously at public meetings. Is that all? His memo to trustees mentioned information not ready for the public.
Beeman also told trustees that information has to be withheld because disclosing it “would hamper our ability to negotiate with the bargaining units.”
Labor negotiations aren’t a legal reason for shutting the public out because the Montana Constitution guarantees citizens the right to participate in public meetings. In a landmark case involving the Great Falls School District, the Montana Supreme Court ruled that “meetings may be closed only when the need for individual privacy exceeds the merits of public disclosure.”
Beeman’s stated strategy of meeting with one trustee at a time in an attempt to circumvent the constitutional and statutory open meetings mandates has been tried before. It is a blatant attempt to thwart the intent and spirit of the open-meetings law as stated by its authors.
Montana courts have held that public governmental bodies cannot create committees to circumvent open-meetings law; the committee meetings must be open, too. The question of whether it’s illegal for public officials to meet one to one to avoid having a public meeting on public business hasn’t been litigated, according to Mike Meloy, a Helena attorney who is counsel for the Montana Freedom of Information Hotline.
Meloy clarified his comment reported on the front page of Wednesday’s Gazette in an interview Wednesday with the editorial writer.
“In this case, I think you could make a pretty good argument for open meetings because he’s doing it to avoid the public observation of the discussions.”
Both Meloy and Martha Sheehy, a Billings attorney experienced in public information law, agreed that any school budget or labor negotiations information that Beeman has is public information, regardless of whether he is ready to disclose it.
Sheehy cited the case in which Barbara Bryan, now school board chairwoman, successfully sued School District 2 as a private citizen because she didn’t have the information that trustees had before they made a decision on school closures.
“They don’t get to decide when they are ready to give us public information,” Sheehy said.
Trust is an essential element in the relationships between Billings Public Schools and its community. Education advocates and taxpayers need to know how the schools are using limited resources and planning the annual budget.
Thus, the restriction of information by School District 2 administration is a serious concern.
The board has two new members and most others haven’t served a full three-year term yet. We call on each trustee to stand up for the public’s right to know. It’s the best strategy for community support and good decision making.