Agenda policy questioned
School board’s attorney approves it
By Scott Bellile
The New London School Board awaits a reply from Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel on whether a district policy complies with open meetings laws.
All board members except one view the current policy as appropriate.
Policy 171.2, adopted by the school board in January 2016, establishes agenda preparation guidelines.
The district administrator and board president are responsible for writing agendas for board meetings and work sessions.
The policy says administrators or other persons within the district may suggest items for inclusion on the agenda by contacting the district administrator’s office before the meeting.
Items not on the agenda cannot be suggested for discussion or action during that meeting because state law requires an agenda to be finalized 24 hours before the meeting.
Board member Chris Martinson believes District Policy 171.2 gives unfair power to the president and school district administrator in planning a school board agenda. Currently Kim Schroeder holds the former position and Kathy Gwidt holds the latter.
Martinson thinks the rest of the board gets less say in what appears on the agenda because they must contact the district administrator or board president to suggest an item, whereas those two individuals do not. The president or district administrator can also reject a board member’s proposed item if he or she deems it inappropriate.
The board sought counsel from the school district’s attorney, Tony Renning, and debated the issue for nearly an hour on April 10 before voting unanimously to write to Schimel.
Attorney sees policy fit
Renning presented his belief that Policy 171.2 is appropriate because it is “consistent with the way a number of school districts operate.”
“Someone (generally the District Administrator and Board President working together) ultimately has to be responsible for setting the Agenda – This is one of the ‘benefits’ of being elected the Board President,” Renning wrote in his recommendation.
Politically it would not be in either leader’s best interest to refuse a proposed agenda item important to a board member, Renning said. He predicted the president and district administrator will continue to honor members’ topic requests.
Some school districts alternatively require an item suggested by a board member appear on an agenda, Renning said. Those districts tend to permit the board to vote to delete agenda items at the start of a meeting. New London does not practice this.
Renning said a fallback option exists for a board member if the president or district administrator rejects his or her proposed agenda item. Under state law, the board member can call a special board meeting together to make his or her case. If a majority of the board agrees the item should be addressed and the board votes in favor of it, then the item can be placed on a future agenda.
However, the rest of the board can also shoot down the suggested item in multiple ways: by not seconding a member’s motion in favor of it, by offering a majority vote against it, or even by a majority of the members staying home during the special meeting, thus not establishing a quorum.
Confusion over purpose of debate
Board member Virginia Schlais questioned why the board was discussing a possible policy change. In her nearly two decades on the board, she could not recall the president or district administrator denying a proposed topic.
“Why is this being called – what we’ve been doing for years and years – in violation of open meetings laws?” Schlais asked.
Martinson said the current policy is not democratic and does not follow Robert’s Rules of Order. He said the workaround of holding a special meeting to attempt to get that item on the agenda is excessive.
He suggested district policy should require a process where if the president rejects an item, he or she would publicly announce it at the next meeting, where the board would then vote on whether to side with the president or to place the topic on a future agenda anyway.
“[You would] still has to convince three other people at least that that should go on there,” Martinson said. “It’s not a recipe for an individual to get something on that nobody wants to talk about.”
Schroeder asked the board if she or Gwidt has ever denied a topic brought before them for an agenda. Martinson responded she had a couple times.
“What did I deny?” Schroeder asked.
“It was not an important thing,” Martinson said.
“What was it?” Schroeder asked again.
“Be specific, Chris,” then-board member John Michels said. (Editor’s note: April 10 was Michels’s final meeting.)
After Schroeder asked a third time, Martinson said she did not allow him to announce a town meeting where an elected official was set to discuss education. He referred to a meeting of the Wolf River Area Patriots, a group that does not claim affiliation to one political party but openly supports conservative government.
“OK, something informational like that which is partisan is going to be denied,” Schroeder said.
“Nonpartisan,” Martinson said. “I mean, it was an elected official. It wasn’t a political campaign.”
“Nobody in this room is buying that, Chris. Yeah, it was,” Michels said. “But that’s not the point. You got denied for a cause, a purpose. Those kinds of announcements aren’t going to be made.”
Martinson proposes change
Martinson also takes issue with the fact the seven board members do not vote on whether to approve that night’s agenda at the start of every meeting. He suggested the process would be fairer to the rest of the board if “Agenda Approval” became an item to the start of every meeting.
He further suggested an “Input for Future Agenda Items” item at the end of the meeting before the board adjourns to give all board members a chance to suggest items for next time, he said.
The rest of the board disagreed with Martinson’s suggestions.
With the latter suggestion specifically, board members argued permitting board members to discuss future agenda items that are not listed on that night’s agenda could lead to violation of the open meetings laws that require a finalized agenda 24 hours before the meeting.
Renning advised against discussing future items at meetings because it could veer board members toward back-and-forth conversations on those proposed future agenda topics without them being listed on the agenda.
“The concern there is that you get into a slippery slope,” Renning said, “that if we allow board members to raise issues and potentially discuss them or get into a discussion of them at the end of the board meeting, have we in circumstances, or could we potentially in certain circumstances, violate the open meetings law by not providing the public with notice that those topics might come up?”
The line would be blurry as far as how much discussion would constitute too much, since there is no way of measuring that.
Disagreements over letter
The discussion on Policy 171.2 began in the district’s policy committee, which Martinson sits on with five other members. The rest of the committee felt Policy 171.2 is OK as is, just as the board feels.
Committee member and New London High School teacher Brian Mathu prepared the letter to Schimel. The letter asks for Schimel’s opinion and presents both sides’ reasons for why they feel Policy 171.2 does or does not violate open meetings law.
Mathu said he felt the letter was balanced. Martinson thought it was stacked against him and declined to sign it.
Martinson asked the board to authorize him to attach his own separate letter to the letter to Schimel. Martinson prepared a letter explaining his side prior to the meeting.
The rest of the board did not support Martinson’s proposal, so his letter was not included. Schlais took issue with Martinson’s line, “In a dictatorship or monarchy, policy #171.2 could be done, but not in our American System of self-government, where there are always checks and balances to decision-making.”
Martinson said he wrote that line while he was in a bad mood and suggested the board could delete it.
Since the board declined to send his letter anyway, Martinson mailed it independently to Schimel on April 20, he told the Press Star. The letter was the same as the one he prepared before the meeting, other than one minor addition.
In another matter related to open meetings, Renning offered the board an overview on state laws regarding closed session.
Renning’s insight was requested after a board member leaked information from a closed session meeting. Board members also indicated distrust toward fellow members in their recent annual survey.
Renning briefed the board on discussion topics where closed session is permitted, including: hiring or firing district employees; employees’ compensation or performance; individuals’ financial, medical or personal matters; conferring with legal counsel with respect to litigation; and negotiating a purchase where an information leak could cost taxpayers money.
Renning said it is critical that board members trust one other not to make certain closed session information public until the board votes to release it.
“The seven of you have to be able to trust each other,” Renning said. “So when you’re in that room, if you don’t trust somebody in that room because you think he or she is going to take that information and share it publicly … that’s going to cut down on the amount of information or the opinions that you express during the closed session.”
Information leaks, such as discussions of disciplinary matters, could also open the board up to defamation accusations if rumors about individuals made public turn out to be untrue.
Martinson asked Renning what to do if a closed session discussion illegally strays off-topic, since that could potentially mean the board is discussing unrelated matters that should not be withheld from the public.
Renning said the board member should state their objection to the matter, and if that does not solve the problem, the board member can write a complaint to the district attorney or attorney general. The district attorney or attorney general may then opt to launch an investigation.
If someone is found to have leaked information, the board could opt to publicly name the person guilty of leaking the information. A member of the public who believes they have been defamed by a leak can also bring legal action against a board member. The board member’s legal defense would come out of his or her own pocket.
The consequences for people who leak confidential information are otherwise limited, Renning said.