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Parents sue Helena school district

Parents sue Helena school district

  • Updated

HELENA — A group of parents and community members filed a lawsuit on Friday against the Helena Public School District, claiming it violated open meeting law and prevented meaningful public participation.

The plaintiffs listed in the case filed in Judicial Court are Bruce Norum, Jon Rush, Barb Hamlin, Theresa Frei, Mikal Wilkerson, Sharon Nason, Lori Page and Jeanne Sticht.

Wilkerson, Page and Nason said they have never sued anybody before and typically are opposed to such actions.

“We don't know what else to do,” Wilkerson said.

Page said she hopes to obtain access to public information and establish the correct process for public participation.

“Children's rights will be more preserved in a transparent process,” she said.

As of Saturday afternoon, Superintendent Bruce Messinger said he hadn't been served the court documents and until then couldn't offer comments.

At the heart of the matter is the Health Enhancement Curriculum, which the district released in June. The document, which contained sections on human sexuality, caused much controversy in Helena, and in response the board slowed down the process and held two lengthy public hearings before approving the document. Messinger also received thousands of e-mails from community members, which he said he took into consideration before making the edits to the first draft.

The court documents filed Friday list many alleged right-to-know violations, saying a number of requests seeking all correspondence, minutes and any other documents regarding the curriculum development last summer were denied. When a CD was provided on Aug. 31, court documents say, it had limited communications and background, and not all correspondence in regards to the health curriculum. A fourth request by Norum in October requesting all documentation, including correspondence, regarding the development, release, revisions and any other part of the process of the curriculum was ignored, court documents say. A fifth request by Wilkerson and Hamlin asking to be notified of all future meetings regarding the curriculum, or at least to be directed to where these meeting were posted, was also ignored.

The group wants an explanation and budget information for textbooks and other materials already purchased and the projected money for the current year.

The group claims that public notice for the Health Enhancement Committee and the Executive Committee meetings was not given, nor were minutes taken. The district maintains that this is not required by law.

The group also says that the public lost all ability to participate in or even review the revisions process as future meetings of the Executive Committee were canceled.

They are asking the court to grant an order awarding appropriate relief, including the production of documents requested and not yet obtained.

They also are asking the court to prohibit future violations, and to ensure that the ongoing work of the Health Enhancement Curriculum conform to the law.

The group is also asking the court to invalidate the all mail-in ballot trustee election format recently adopted. Trustees are in the process of updating all of their policies, and at the recent board meeting, the revisions included allowing the board to move a noticed action item from first reading to action in the same meeting.

The group filing the lawsuit claims that moving a decision along in one meeting — even with public comment allowed — prevents meaningful public participation.

By law, the board is not required to introduce an item and wait until future meetings to take action; however, that has been its procedure for many years until the meeting on Feb. 8.

Messinger said a decision regarding the election this year was needed to inform the secretary of state and Lewis and Clark County offices of the intention to hold a mail-ballot election in enough time to organize it.


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