Sunday, February 22, 2015

Sunshine Law Lessons From the 2015 State Audit of the St. Joseph School District

There are a lot of lessons to learn from the 2015 St. Joseph School District State Audit. One very important section of the state audit report is the Sunshine Law section.

Hopefully the Fox C-6 community and our Fox C-6 school board members and board candidates will read the Sunshine Law section of the St. Joseph School District state audit report very carefully because it's very educational. Of course, some of our district administrators didn't want the public to know what was going on in the district as documented in email responses to my questions regarding board meeting minutes and other issues.

The lack of transparency and intentional lack of details in school board meeting minutes allowed the malfeasant behavior of some of our district administrators to continue for years unchecked. Board members should have done their job but they were willfully blind as to what was going on.

When I spoke for the first time at a school board meeting in December 2010, it had been more than two and a half years of dealing with the district on Section 504 issues where the district had been found non-compliant with the law and had signed a Resolution Agreement with the U.S. Department of Educations's Office for Civil Rights (ED OCR). The Resolution Agreement was signed by Dan Baker on May 1, 2009 in which the district agreed to do things in order to become compliant with the law by certain dates. As of December 2014, the district still had not met the obligations of the agreement from May 1, 2009.

In March 2010, Fox C-6 was notified that the district would be undergoing a District Wide Compliance Review which was issued out of the Washington D.C. ED OCR Office. The District Wide Compliance Review has been an open investigation ever since and is still an open investigation. The public was never notified of the Resolution Agreement or the District Wide Compliance Review. Former superintendent Diane Brown-Critchlow as well as the district's former law firm addressed both the Resolution Agreement and the District Wide Compliance Review informing me at board meetings during Public Comment and in letters from their legal counsel that there was nothing to tell the public until the Resolution Agreement was closed or the District Wide Compliance Review investigation was completed and findings were issued.

How many years do you think it would take for a school district to fulfill the agreed upon items in a Resolution Agreement or for ED OCR to investigate and complete a District Wide Compliance Review?

At the December 2010 Fox C-6 board meeting I asked the Fox C-6 school board about the credentials and if background checks had been done and who approved the salary for Jamie Critchlow when he was hired by the district in September 2009 and promoted to the Director of the Bridges program in November 2009.

I also reminded the board that Dianne Brown had blocked me from speaking to the school board in September 2008 when she informed me that the school board had already decided not to speak with me after I had already been told by board president Wes Griffith that they would. Mrs. Brown told me that just as Wes Griffith and board secretary Debby Davis had already informed me that since Wes Griffith forgot to put me on that night's agenda that I would be able to speak at the next board meeting in Closed Session. Board members Dan Smith and Ruth Ann Newman and assistant superintendent Dan Baker were all sitting at the table as Mrs. Brown informed me that the board had decided not to speak with me.

At the December 2010 board meeting, I also asked the board if they were aware of the ED OCR District Wide Compliance Review since nothing had been documented in any of the board meeting minutes that the district was undergoing a District Wide Compliance Review. Dianne Brown asked me during my Public Comments if I was speaking about the ED OCR complaint to which I answered no. I was asking about the District Wide Compliance Review since Fox C-6 was one of only 2 school districts in the United States that were undergoing a District Wide Compliance Review to determine if the district was properly following the law and providing Section 504 plans for students that qualified for Section 504 for medical disabilities.

My questions at the December 2010 board meeting were documented in the board meeting minutes as "Concerns in the district." My "Concerns in the district" as documented in the board meeting minutes weren't very informative, therefore the public was kept in the dark as to matters that should have concerned the community.

I asked the board and board secretary to update the board meeting minutes with more details, I received a response from Dianne Brown informing me that the board meeting minutes properly followed the law and that the board secretary contacted the Missouri School Board Association's legal counsel regarding my concern about the board meeting minutes.

Had there been audio recordings of board meetings back then, the public would have been able to question the board much sooner as to why the district was undergoing a District Wide Compliance Review and why the district still hadn't fulfilled the agreed upon requirements of the May 2009 Resolution Agreement.

Not informing the public about District Wide Compliance Reviews and Resolution Agreements appears to be a common practice in our state. The lack of enforcement of the law from ED OCR and USDA OCR and the lack of transparency allows school districts to keep Resolution Agreements and District Wide Compliance Reviews open for years without consequence. In many cases students graduate before school districts properly meet the requirements of Section 504 law.

Dave Palmer is the last of the long term board members who was sitting on the Fox C-6 school board in December 2010. Dave Palmer along with the other long term board members did nothing as they were provided documentation on Section 504 law and asked to attend Section 504 meetings to understand how the district was getting around the law. As we provided the school board documentation back then, they handed it over to Dianne Brown and to the attorneys which was used during the district's Due Process Hearing in 2010.

Mr. Palmer is well known for stating that he wasn't going to speak to the public because he doesn't want to get sued for saying something wrong or having what he said misquoted. Dave Palmer's running for the school board again this April. Mr. Palmer certainly does not need another term on our school board. I can't even guess what reason he has for wanting to be on the board again. Perhaps he feels the need to pay back the district for promoting his wife to a position she should not have been promoted to in 2006 as the Director of Nursing and was given a 75% pay increase for that promotion.

I believe if there had been audio recordings of Fox C-6 school board meetings posted online and board meeting packets had been made available to the public prior to board meetings 5 or 6 years ago like they are now, the community would have been aware of the problems going on in our district much sooner. Those who did know were too afraid to speak up and voice their concerns for fear of retaliation. Everyone knows what happened to those that did speak up.

You can read eventual email response I received from former superintendent Dianne Brown from May 2011 addressing my concerns from my December 2010 public comments in the following article:

I've given numerous examples of times when the board made decisions in Closed Session meetings that should have been made during Public Session just like those mentioned in the St. Joseph state audit report, The most blatant and well documented one was the violation of Sunshine law at the November 5, 2013 board workshop when an attorney from Fox's former law firm recommended taking a public discussion into Closed Session.

Transparency is very important! The public needs to know what's going on in their school district and how their tax dollars are being spent. Since the school board represents the community, it's their responsibility to ensure that the public is kept informed by making sure that the board secretary properly and thoroughly documents their decisions and Public Comments from the community.

Having board members who are knowledgeable about Sunshine Law and are willing to stand up to district administrators and hold them accountable for their actions is vital to ensuring that our district properly follows the law and doesn't just pretend to be following the law.

Read what the state auditor's office had to say about Closed meeting minutes in the 2015 Missouri State Audit Report of the St. Joseph School District and why it's important that they are made publicly available just like the Public Session minutes are.

The following excerpt of information is from the Sunshine Law section of the 2015 Missouri State Audit Report of the St. Joseph School District

13.  Sunshine Law
The School Board did not always comply with the Sunshine Law and held numerous improper closed meetings.

13.1  Closed Meetings

The Board held approximately 40 closed meetings from January 2012 through June 2014, but did not always follow various requirements of Chapter 610, RSMo (the Sunshine Law).
  • The Board approved a list of reasons for going into a closed session at an open meeting in several instances, but only discussed some of these topics in the closed meeting. For example, minutes of the February 10, 2014, open meeting indicated a closed meeting would be held to discuss legal; real state; hiring, firing, disciplining or promoting of employees; specifications for competitive bidding; sealed bids; individually identifiable personnel records, performance ratings or records pertaining to employees or applicants for employment; and, individually identifiable personnel records. However, the closed meeting minutes did not document any discussion of real estate, bidding, or sealed bids. In addition, the Board met on occasion in closed session and the only documented discussion was the approval of prior closed meeting minutes.
  • The Board discussed some topics in closed meetings that are not allowable under the Sunshine Law. According to minutes of closed meetings, unallowable topics included scholarship awards, construction project updates, and department updates. The Board also discussed items in closed session that may be unallowable and did not maintain sufficient documentation to demonstrate how these issues were allowable under the Sunshine Law. Some of these issues included the creation of new or additional positions, lighting issues at an elementary school, the academic calendar, and block scheduling.
To ensure compliance with state law and the public is accurately informed, the Board should only cite reasons for going into closed session it plans to discuss, restrict discussion in closed meetings to the allowable topics listed in the Sunshine Law, and adequately demonstrate how topics comply with the Sunshine Law for discussion in closed session.

13.2   Public disclosure

The Board does not always make public the final disposition of legal matters or contracts discussed and approved in closed meetings. The Board approved the settlement of two lawsuits during the 2 school years ending June 30, 2014. The district's financial responsibility in one of these settlements, a terminated contract, was $87,500. The other resulted in a $100,000 settlement paid by the district's insurance provider to a former employee. In addition, the district agreed to pay family health insurance premiums of the former employee until she was Medicare eligible, which was approximately 17 years. The Board did not publicly disclose the final resolutions. 

The Board also voted on and approved some contracts in closed session and did not subsequently disclose those votes in an open meeting or by other means. For example, on December 21, 2012, the Board approved an amended and restated contract for the former Superintendent. Also, on February 10, 2014, the Board voted to ratify the additional duty stipends granted administrators in August 2013, and authorized the Superintendent to reissue extra duty contracts.  

Section 610.021, RSMo, requires any minutes, vote or settlement agreement relating to legal actions, causes of action or litigation involving the district or any agent or entity representing its interests or acting on its behalf or with its authority, including any insurance company acting on behalf of the district as its insured, be made public upon final disposition of the matter 

voted upon or upon the signing by the parties of the settlement agreement, including the terms of the settlements. The section also requires the Board to disclose in open session or by other means the approval of all contracts. 

Recommendations - The School Board:  

13.1  Cite specific reasons for going into closed meetings only for topics it plans to discuss, and ensure items discussed in closed meetings are allowable topics under state law and adequately demonstrated as such. 

13.2  Ensure the final disposition of legal matters discussed at closed meetings and all votes to approve contracts are made public as required by state law.