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School Board gets 101 on meetings

A recent training session for the District 833 School Board highlighted the challenging situations board members can face when they have to make controversial decisions or address thorny issues related to student and employee privacy.

The training also exposed long-held philosophical differences among board members about how they publicly express their differences.

The two-hour briefing with the district's attorney involved a discussion of the state's Open Meeting Law, which guides how elected government boards must operate their meetings. It also covered personnel and student privacy policies.

It was a rare, in-depth discussion of how to handle issues such as questions about personnel and student information. It also was the first comprehensive Open Meeting Law briefing for the board, which has run into difficulty with the law. (A state advisory opinion earlier this year concluded that the board violated the Open Meeting Law last December.)

In fact, during the discussion attorney Mick Waldspurger told board members he recommends a change in how they hold their public meetings and closed sessions to improve an "arcane" meeting process that posed potential Open Meeting Law problems for the board.

School Board Chairwoman Leslee Boyd said she is working on a new meeting process that will allow for flexibility while still following the law.

Waldspurger led board members and administrators through a series of hypothetical scenarios to test their knowledge of the Open Meeting Law and data privacy restrictions. He also discussed board responsibilities and suggested ways the board should operate.

That discussion revealed long-simmering tensions among some board members.

Waldspurger urged the board to build consensus and speak as "one voice" after a vote is taken. That is good for the district and builds trust with the public, Waldspurger said.

That has been a sensitive subject for the District 833 School Board. Some members have publicly expressed frustration with Jim Gelbmann, who at times has taken dissenting positions and in a number of ways has been vocal in his position even after a vote is cast.

Waldspurger appeared to be referring to that when he told the board that in his experience the most destructive thing he has seen with a school board is "unnecessary negativity, particularly stemming from being on the losing side of a vote."

"I'd ask you to step back and ask, how does that better the education of kids?" Waldspurger said.

Gelbmann said he believes it is important to explain his position after a vote and that he does not intend to marginalize the board's decision even if he disagrees.

Boyd and board member Ron Kath both quickly complained of Gelbmann's recent actions during the board's approval of a Liberty Ridge Elementary School expansion, which Gelbmann opposed.

After the training, Jacobus said he agreed with Waldspurger that it is important for the board to speak as one voice, though that may not mean all board members agreed on an issue.

"It's important for our community to see they have trust and confidence in us in how we're going forward," Jacobus said.

In an interview following the training, Boyd said "some board members are more accepting of suggestions and changes than others."

"We do have board policies that state board members need to work as a group," she said. "We can continue to express our desire for that to happen."

The session with Waldspurger was conducted in a public special meeting Monday, Aug. 20. Jacobus and Waldspurger contended that training on the Open Meeting Law could have been held in private because it would not deal with specific business or issues before the board, so it would not meet public meeting requirements of the law.

After the Bulletin questioned why a training session about the Open Meeting Law should be held in private, Jacobus called a special meeting open to the public.

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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