The Eagle has asked the Sedgwick County District Attorney’s Office to investigate whether the Wichita school board violated the Kansas Open Meetings Act when it met in secret over the past week to interview candidates for superintendent.
The complaint alleges that an eight-day private session approved by the board on Feb. 13 violates the open meetings law because board members should have adjourned the meeting and provided notice of when they planned to gather again.
The complaint also claims that a meeting held at an undisclosed location Saturday, according to sources close to the board, was not conducted openly as required by law.
Board members resumed their Feb. 13 meeting at noon Tuesday and voted 6-0 to hire Alicia Thompson, currently assistant superintendent for elementary schools, as superintendent.
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“We understand there may be rare times when it is warranted for a governing body to meet behind closed doors, but the public should still know when and where those meetings are occurring,” said Steve Coffman, The Eagle’s executive editor and vice president for news.
“We believe the school board has thumbed its nose at this basic tenet of open government, and that decision should not stand unchallenged.”
The complaint seeks a finding that the board violated the open meetings law, a requirement that board members attend training on the Kansas Open Meetings Act (KOMA), and “any other appropriate remedies available … under the law.”
It was submitted Tuesday on behalf of The Eagle by Max Kautsch, an attorney for the Kansas Press Association.
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.
“Our board is acting on the advice of legal counsel to ensure the important business they have to conduct is being done in the appropriate and legal manner,” said district spokeswoman Wendy Johnson.
“Following the interviews that will take place as part of this executive session provision, the BOE will hold discussion and take further action in a public meeting that is fully accessible and available to all interested stakeholders and media,” she said.
The board was searching for someone to replace John Allison, who will leave in June to head the Olathe school district.
During the last superintendent search in 2009, board members called public meetings and provided notice to those who requested it, as required by the state’s transparency law.
At some of those meetings, they recessed into closed-door sessions to conduct interviews or discuss candidates but reconvened in public afterward to adjourn.
The Kansas Open Meetings Act allows school boards to meet privately to discuss specific topics including matters related to non-elected personnel. A private session may take place only after an open meeting is convened.
Kautsch, The Eagle’s lawyer, said the board’s decision to enter into an eight-day private meeting violates the law because the motion called for an adjournment rather than a recess. In addition, he said, the board should have provided notice about where and when they planned to meet.
“In this instance, the goal of convenience has run afoul of the KOMA,” the complaint says.
School board member Betty Arnold said she felt comfortable with the extended private session after hearing from the board’s attorney that it met the requirements of the state’s open meetings law.
“As far as I know, this can be done and this is legal,” she said.
Arnold expressed frustration over implications that board members were attempting to thwart the law and operate in secret.
“The board is so very conscientious of things,” she said. “We do everything by the book.
“Any time there is a personnel matter we go into executive session, and this is a personnel matter. So it’s not as though there is something underhanded going on,” she said. “It’s just a matter of trying to do an interview to replace our superintendent. That is it. That is all.”
Coffman said The Eagle and its website, Kansas.com, “do not take this step lightly, but we have serious concerns about the actions taken by the school board.”
“We believe those actions certainly violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the Kansas Open Meetings Act,” he said.