Wichita school board could be violating open meetings law, lawyer says

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The Wichita school board could be violating the state’s open meetings law by gathering in secret sessions this week to interview superintendent candidates, says an attorney for the Kansas Press Association.

“They apparently plan to just continue to meet whenever they want over this next period of time, and that’s not legal,” Max Kautsch, a lawyer for the Kansas Press Association, said Wednesday.

“There’s no way that’s right.”

Monday evening, school board members voted unanimously to recess into a private session to discuss personnel matters. They said the regular meeting would resume at noon Feb. 21.

During the week-long recess, board members plan to gather at unspecified times and locations to meet with candidates for the superintendent post. The board is searching for someone to replace John Allison, who will leave in June to head the Olathe school district.

Tom Powell, the school board’s lawyer, cited a 1996 Kansas Attorney General’s opinion that he said allows elected bodies authority to recess into a private session one day and return on a subsequent day.

He called the practice “pretty routine across the state.”

The Wichita school board did not use the strategy during its last superintendent search in 2009, however, when it interviewed Allison and other candidates.

Kautsch, a Lawrence attorney who specializes in open records work, said the attorney general’s opinion is “ambiguous,” and that the Kansas Open Meetings Act defines a recess as a short break during a regular meeting.

Calling a week-long private session – during which board members could meet without notifying members of the media or public – violates the intent of the law, Kautsch said.

“It’s hard to imagine that there isn’t some circumvention happening because they could be meeting at any time, and that’s more or less what they said they were going to do,” he said.

School board president Sheril Logan reiterated Wednesday that the private meetings are necessary to protect the confidentiality of job candidates, which at this stage are district employees.

“It’s really about finding the very best candidate and protecting our employees,” she said. “We will not be taking votes or doing anything else.

“Our attorney has assured us what we’re doing is perfectly legal under the attorney general’s opinion.”

Powell, the board’s attorney, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

School board member Betty Arnold, who served on the board during its last superintendent search, said Wednesday that the lengthy private session is more convenient for board members.

Arnold said the board would have employed the strategy in 2009, but “we didn’t know we could.”

During the search process that year, the board convened public meetings at North High School before recessing into private sessions to interview candidates. Interviews were conducted at undisclosed locations, but afterward board members would reconvene at North High to adjourn the meeting.

“It was cumbersome,” Arnold said. “This actually is nothing different, other than it simplifies life for board members.”

Arnold said she feels comfortable that the board is meeting the requirements of the open meetings law, despite gathering this week without providing details to the public about where or when.

“At some point, I would expect that members of our community would see that the board is really pretty transparent, and we bend over backward making sure that we don’t violate any kind of rules,” she said.

“We have our attorney that is always present,” Arnold said. “We’re not violating anything. The only time we meet is when we will actually deal with a personnel item.”

Board member Jeff Davis said he also thinks the board is following the open meetings law.

“I do feel comfortable with it,” Davis said. “I just go on the advice of our attorney, who has looked at the law and feels that it’s all completely legal.”

Kautsch, the press attorney, said that even if Monday’s blanket notification of a week-long private session qualifies as sufficient notice as outlined in the 1996 attorney general’s opinion, it still violates the spirit of the open meetings law.

“What they’re doing is bending too much toward convenience and whatever interests they have, and in exchange they are sacrificing the interests of the public,” he said.

“They are erring on the side of secrecy instead of liberally construing the law in favor of open government,” he said.

Steve Wentz, president of United Teachers of Wichita, said he didn’t understand why the identities of job candidates should be kept from the public.

Board members said they plan to interview internal candidates before deciding whether to broaden the scope of their search.

“I can’t understand who in the district would be upset … for people to know they’re being interviewed,” said Wentz, whose union represents about 4,200 teachers.

“I’m a big fan of personal privacy, but I’m not a big fan of things being worked and twisted to purposefully keep people in the dark,” he said.

“Whether you’re going into executive session for nine days or sneaking people in and out of back doors, it just gives the perception that you’re not being upfront.”

Suzanne Perez Tobias: 316-268-6567, @suzannetobias