During two hours of discussion Monday night, School District 2 trustees barely got started in trying to decide how to fully involve the public in the decision-making process.
Larry Martin, the district's attorney, did most of the talking, explaining the implications of recent Montana Supreme Court decisions and suggesting how the School Board might want to conduct its business in the future.
In the course of the discussion, trustees talked about all kinds of worst-case scenarios — of being asked to surrender their personal meeting notes, of being forced to have meetings between principals and the superintendent open to the public, of being unable to adopt policies because of the need for perpetual public debate.
Barbara Bryan, the parent whose lawsuit against the district resulted in the Supreme Court that prompted most of the discussion, advised trustees to calm down.
"I think we have to get out of this crisis mode," she said, and instead of trying to imagine the worst things that might happen, start making policy decisions that contribute to open government and public participation.
Elizabeth Kaleva, an attorney for the Montana School Boards Association, had similar advice, telling trustees, "start easing into this."
Bryan filed her suit in 2001, after trustees voted to close Rimrock Elementary, which her son attended, and two other elementary schools. She argued that the School Board deprived her of her constitutional rights to participate in a public decision and to have full access to the documents used by the board to reach its decision.
A District Court judge ruled against Bryan, but she appealed to the state Supreme Court, which ruled last November that her rights had been violated. The School Board later gave Bryan a chance to present her case again and then upheld its original decision to close the three schools.
The discussion Monday night was an attempt to begin formulating policies that would bring the school district into compliance with the state's open-meeting and public participation laws.
Martin said the Bryan ruling and other recent Supreme Court decisions clearly affect more than just the School Board and extend to committees, e-mail correspondence and some administrative meetings.
He said the board should publicly announce and then open to the public any significant meetings that deal with issues for which the trustees are ultimately responsible. Martin said all documents produced for those meetings should by saved for easy retrieval by members of the public, and the district should begin keeping a log of all information requests.
Trustees also discussed a new state law, House Bill 94, that requires public bodies to allow citizens to make general comments at public meetings, rather than restricting comment to items on the agenda, as is usually the case now. There was some discussion of how to incorporate that comment — at the start of a meeting? After an official motion has been made? Before the board begins its own debate?
Board Chairwoman Katharin Kelker said the first step should be relatively simple: "It's a matter of educating the public as to what their prerogatives are."
Martin said the best general policy is to err on the side of openness.
|SD2 approves Kimmet deal
A $23,000 settlement with former School Superintendent James Kimmett was approved by the District 2 Board of Trustees Monday night.
Kimmet was hired by the district in 1995 and fired in August 2000. A year later, Kimmet filed a notice of appeal with A.J. Micheletti, Yellowstone County superintendent of schools, alleging that the school district had violated various conditions of his employment contract.
The original claim by Kimmet in the 2001 appeal was for $280,801, but district attorney Larry Martin said Kimmett had agreed to settle for $23,109. Kimmett now owns a bed and breakfast in Canada.
Trustees also voted to put $126,900 in state block grant funds into a flex account, rather than into the building reserve fund. There was no decision Monday on how money in the flex account would be spent, but trustees had talked earlier of using some of the elementary district's block grant money to help pay the salaries of reading tutors and oversized-classroom aides for the coming school year. Trustees said they would make those spending decisions at a later meeting.