School Board violates Open Meeting Law, not strong enough response


Photo by John Franklin

The School Board formed a quorum at the correct time at the Nov. 14 meeting. They formed a quorum when they should not have done so at the Aug. 29 Working Group meeting. That was the reason they received an opinion letter from Commissioner Alice Roberts-Davis from the Minnesota Department of Administration.

John Franklin, Copy Editor-in-Chief

On Aug. 29, the School Board formed a quorum at a Finance and Operations Working group meeting, therefore violating Minnesota’s Open Meeting Law (OML).  This was confirmed by an advisory opinion letter from Commissioner Alice Roberts-Davis from the Minnesota Department of Administration.

The School Board then implemented a new policy that attempts, but does not appear to prevent OML to be violated in the future.

The School Board is trained by the Minnesota School Board Association regarding Open Meeting Law, yet failed to show an understanding of the significance of a quorum at the Aug. 29 meeting.

The Law states that a meeting becomes a School Board meeting when a quorum (four Board members in this case) is present to discuss, decide or receive information as a group. At the Aug. 29 meeting, the three School Board members who were a part of the working group showed up, but a fourth member was present and not only received information, but also discussed the topic at hand with the school board.

Community Member Carl Blondin requested an advisory opinion to the Department of Administration on Sept. 16 regarding the Aug. 29 meeting that violated OML.

Board director Jennifer Pelletier explained, “So, if three people are participating and four people are there, that fourth person may not be speaking, but they’re receiving information, and that leaves the other three [not present at the meeting] out, and that’s a problem.”

In this case, Board director Mark Burns, Board director Liz Weisberg and Board director Shelly Pearson were members of the committee.  Superintendent Denise Pontrelli and Executive Director of Finance and Operations Kristen Hoheisel were also present at the meeting.  Board director Tina Riehle, who was in the audience at the time, asked a question about the topic being discussed among the working group.

According to a video of the Aug. 29 meeting at around the seven minute mark, Hoheisel pointed out that she was nervous because four members of the School Board (a quorum) were participating. Riehle responded saying it was an open meeting and kept talking.

Pearson, who is on the Finance and Operations Working group and present at the Aug. 29 meeting, said, “We were talking about it [expenditure and planning form] and then Director Riehle shared her opinion of why she wanted to do this.”

In response to the Opinion letter, the School Board enacted a policy to the bottom of working group and committee meeting calendars stating, “All meetings are open to the public. Also, Board members in addition to the designated Working Group members may attend the meetings; therefore, a quorum or more of Board members may be present.”

“According to our district legal counsel, the posting of the open meeting was missing a small piece of information regarding whether it might be possible that other board members who are not on the working group might be present,” Board Director Sarah Stivland explained. “That change has been made. Going forward, this information will be included in working group official postings.”

Graphic by Drew Jurek

In reality, the new policy will not prevent a situation like this from happening again if a fourth school board member is present in the audience of a working group or a committee meeting. As stated in the opinion from Roberts-Davis, “Once the fourth School Board member was present to discuss, decide, or receive information as a group relating to the official business of the School Board, the committee meeting also became a meeting of the School Board.”

In an email, Roberts-Davis added, “A notice on the Committee’s page would not have made a difference in this situation.”

“As a Board we will do whatever Commissioner Roberts-Davis recommends,” said Board Chair Mike Ptacek.

In order to lessen the damage and attempt to heal the wounds of the opinion letter, the School Board should terminate the policy they set in response to the letter and implement a policy that will restrict non-committee Board members from attending meetings in the audience.

Letters like the one the School Board received are important to learn from and ensure all open meeting laws parameters are being followed correctly.

Pelletier added, “Your school board needs to get it’s act together.”