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School Board: Committee meetings could be closed to public

Brainerd High School student council members Laura Wadsten (left) and Anna Dillon address the Brainerd School Board Monday night. Spenser Bickett/Brainerd Dispatch

The Brainerd School Board Monday night took the first step toward closing its committee meetings to the public.

The board unanimously approved the first reading of a revision to district policy 213—School Board Committees.

Mike Rengel, the district's legal counsel, had previously recommended the board should restructure its committees, Superintendent Laine Larson said. At the April 10 meeting, the board approved the first reading of policy 205—Open Meetings and Closed Meetings, which correlates with this policy change, she said.

Rengel recommended the wording of the revision to policy 213, Larson said. She spoke with Rengel Monday afternoon, she said, and he provided more supportive language for the policy wording.

Currently, the board has six standing committees: facilities; curriculum and student activities; finance and insurance; legislative; long-range planning; and personnel. Under the revision, the personnel committee becomes the personnel and negotiations committee, but the rest of the titles remain the same.

The current policy does not outline how many members will seat on each committee, but the board has typically appointed three members to each committee. Despite this structure, members would frequently attend meetings of committees they were not members of, creating a quorum of the school board. This created confusion during a January special board meeting, resulting in district staff looking into the current committee policy.

The revised policy stipulates no more than two board members will be appointed to each committee. Both policies note the committees are advisory and are designed to make recommendations and provide updates to the full school board.

Behind closed doors?

The revised policy, under section IV, paragraph A, states the newly revised committees will not be subject to Minnesota open meeting law, outlined in state statute chapter 13D.

"The open meeting law does not apply to committees that are advisory only and do not have decision-making authority," the policy states.

The new policy cites two court decisions, Sovereign v. Dunn and Minnesota Educ. Association v. Bennett, to justify this position. Minnesota Educ. Association v. Bennett holds open meeting law applies only to public bodies with decision-making authority, the policy states.

Meetings of standing committees are subject to open meeting law, no matter how many members sit on the committee, said Mark Anfinson, a Twin Cities attorney specializing in open meeting law.

"There's no doubt that the board is wrong on this issue—standing committees of a public body are subject to the open meeting law, regardless of the number of committee members," Anfinson wrote via email.

Support for this position comes from an advisory opinion issued by the state commissioner of administration in 2005. This case involved a woman asking for an advisory opinion on public access to committee meetings of the Cannon Falls Community Hospital Board.

In this situation, the five-member board had two board members sit on its standing committees, which met regularly to discuss and consider board business. These meetings were usually closed to the public.

Section 13D.01, subdivision 1 of the open meeting law states subcommittee meetings of a public body must be open to the public when "required or permitted by law to transact public business in a meeting." The opinion states standing committees of the Cannon Falls Community Hospital Board perform tasks relating to the ongoing operation of the hospital district. These tasks require the committees to receive and analyze information in order to make recommendations.

"The very nature of this process requires that the standing committees make decisions about what should or should not be communicated to the board," the opinion states.

The advisory opinion also cites the Sovereign v. Dunn decision, which the revised school board policy quotes as follows: "a gathering of public officials is not a 'committee, subcommittee, board, department or commission' subject to the open meeting law unless the group is capable of exercising decision-making powers of the governing body."

The advisory opinion states the Sovereign v. Dunn decision applies to a committee acting on an ad hoc basis, not a standing committee. The advisory opinion held the standing committees of the hospital district must comply with open meeting law.

"The OML was enacted for the public benefit and is liberally construed in favor of openness," the advisory opinion states. "Therefore, the meetings of the standing committees must be open to the public unless there is an express statutory provision that authorizes or requires that the meeting, or a portion of a meeting, be closed."

Board chair Bob Nystrom was absent Monday.

In other business, the board:

Approved the following resignations, retirements and terminations of certified staff: Adam Galles, career technical education teacher, Brainerd High School, non-renewal effective June 5; Amanda Genz, occupational therapist, Paul Bunyan Education Cooperative, resignation effective June 5; Kathy Hegstrom, social studies teacher, BHS, retirement effective June 5; Kellie Klimek, kindergarten teacher, Lowell Elementary School, resignation effective June 5; Sheila Niemeyer, part-time physical education teacher, BHS, non-renewal effective June 5; Alaine Sandberg, special education teacher, Riverside Elementary School, resignation effective June 5; Constance Trusty, first-grade teacher, Baxter Elementary School, retirement effective June 5.

Approved the following resignations, retirements and terminations of non-certified staff: Marydis McMillan, interpreter, Riverside Elementary School, non-renewal effective June 5; Sarah Owen, educational assistant, Brainerd Learning Center, resignation effective June 5; Montina Wilson, interpreter, Nisswa Elementary School, resignation effective June 5; Denise Sundquist, health and safety facilities assistant, Washington Education Services Building, termination due to budget cuts and position elimination, effective June 30.

Adopted a resolution terminating the teaching contract of Autumn Aeling, a probationary first-grade teacher at Riverside Elementary School, at the end of the current school year. Her contract will not be renewed for the 2017-18 school year.

Adopted a resolution terminating the teaching contract of Christine Kavanaugh, a probationary teacher/counselor at BHS, at the end of the current school year. Her contract will not be renewed for the 2017-18 school year.

Approved a resolution to renew membership in the Minnesota State High School League for the 2017-18 school year.

Approved an agreement with Jostens for the 2017-18 BHS yearbook in the amount of $33,105.

Approved an agreement with Jostens for the 2017-18 Forestview Middle School yearbook in the amount of $10,045.

Approved a Brainerd High School field trip request for an a cappella choir tour March 10-17, 2018, to Los Angeles. The trip will take place during spring break.

Heard an update from BHS student council members Laura Wadsten and Anna Dillon about projects the student council has been working on.

Accepted donations from the previous month totaling $11,664.

Spenser Bickett

Spenser Bickett covers the Brainerd City Council and education. A native of the Twin Cities, Bickett attended the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where he majored in journalism with a minor in political science. After graduation, he worked for the International Falls Journal as a staff writer before coming to Brainerd.

 
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