When the Billings school board holds a special meeting today at noon, it must address the problem it created last week by shutting the public out of a discussion of superintendent finalists.
In previous superintendent searches, trustees complied with Montana’s open meetings law and debated their finalists in public. Those public discussions brought up candidate strengths and weaknesses. The most recent previous superintendent search ended with the hiring of Terry Bouck.
The board is using a different search firm this time, and the process has been different, involving the board earlier in choosing the semi-finalists who interviewed last week. But the commitment to openness must be the same.
The same day that Billings trustees closed their meeting for an hour or so, the Montana Supreme Court announced a ruling in an open meeting case against the Wolf Point School board. The state’s highest court held in a 5-0 decision that a public governmental body has to provide a “particularized showing” of why its meeting can be closed under specific exceptions to the law before closing the meeting.
Billings trustees aren’t necessarily agreeing that the March 30 meeting was improperly closed, but they are holding the special meeting today to “dot their I’s and cross their T's”, said Jeana Lervick, an attorney for the school district. “They want to make sure the process isn’t tainted,” she said. “They want to make sure everyone is comfortable with the process.”
Before the closed session, trustees spent two days interviewing five finalists for the job of succeeding Bouck, who will retire in June. The board was scheduled to reconvene to discuss which of the five they would invite to return for a second round of interviews. But before that public meeting, trustees convened for closed session to talk about those same candidates.
Up to that point, trustees had been especially mindful of the public’s right to know about the candidates. The board interviews were livestreamed and recorded. Billings Gazette staff, Community 7 TV and a KULR camera woman attended. Billings Gazette education reporter Matt Hoffman sat through all five interviews and stayed with the board in between recorded sessions.
The Gazette objected to the closed meeting last week.
Chairwoman Greta Besch Moen scheduled the noon meeting today in Room 213 of Lincoln Education Center. The only item on the agenda is: “The board will continue discussion of superintendent candidate process.” A draft schedule for the final three interviews on April 11, 12 and 13 is attached.
We call on the Billings Public Schools trustees to affirm and demonstrate their commitment to transparency and openness. Let the sun shine into today’s meeting and every meeting as Montana law requires.