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Our View: Did District 833 board follow Open Meeting Law?

The District 833 School Board's search for a new superintendent is rolling along, but an issue surrounding Superintendent Mark Porter's dismissal gave us pause for concern.

We have questioned whether the board violated the Minnesota Open Meeting Law in its handling of Porter's final performance evaluation. We've asked a state agency that interprets the Open Meeting Law to provide an advisory opinion on whether the board's action constituted a violation.

This is what concerns us:

The board gave Porter a performance evaluation in a closed workshop Dec. 15. In the regular open meeting that immediately followed that closed session the board voted not to renew Porter's contract.

The Open Meeting Law makes clear that a performance evaluation can be conducted behind closed doors, but it goes on to declare that a public body shall summarize the evaluation at the "next open meeting."

For the South Washington County School Board, we contend that the "next open meeting" was the Dec. 15 regular meeting, even if it occurred shortly after the workshop. However, there was no performance evaluation summary offered at that public meeting. Nor was there a summary at the board's Jan. 12 special meeting and workshop, both of which were open to the public.

During that time, the Bulletin and many members of the public were raising questions about why the board did not renew Porter's contract and about the results of his evaluation. Scarce information was shared publicly about a major decision.

We asked board Chairwoman Leslee Boyd about the timing of the evaluation summary. She said she had been directed by the Minnesota School Boards Association to summarize the evaluation at the Jan. 26 regular meeting.

That concerned us. We consulted with our attorney and decided to pursue the state review.

Subsequent information from the Minnesota School Boards Association lent credence to our concern. The association's deputy executive director told the Bulletin that a staff member "apparently made a misstatement" during a conversation with Boyd about when the performance evaluation summary should be made public.

Minnesota Department of Administration officials agreed to review our case. The agency could offer an advisory opinion concluding that a meeting violation occurred. Of course, state officials also could opine that the board followed the law and our concern was unfounded. We will report the results regardless.

In cases when the agency concludes that a violation occurred, there is no penalty or enforcement action. Still, an authoritative declaration from a respected state agency serves as a reminder to elected officials of the importance of following the Open Meeting Law.

Some may question why the Bulletin is pursuing this. After all, the board apparently acted on bad information and the performance summary was eventually made public, right?

The question here isn't whether the spirit of the law was followed. We have questioned whether the board followed the letter of the law as it handled one of its most controversial decisions in recent years. Fallout from the board's actions begins to shine light on the importance of following these laws carefully: rational - and irrational - questions could have been more promptly addressed rather than being left to fester out in the open while board members largely were silent.

The public has a reasonable expectation that its elected officials are following the law, and they should be called out if that does not happen.