On January 23, the School Board, with some absentees (including myself), met in executive session for the publicly declared reason of "The governing body named above conducted an Executive Session pursuant to Indiana’s Open Meetings Law, IC-5-14-1.5-6.1 (10) To train school board members with an outside consultant about the performance of their role as public officials."
I was absent from this meeting due to being overseas for my brother-in-laws wedding. However, I later was in a meeting with the superintendent, two board members (no quorum), and others, in which I was informed as to the nature of the meeting and the discussions that followed. Following this, I began investigating Open Door Law and executive sessions. I came to the conclusion that this meeting was in violation of ODL and not a legal meeting. I therefore filed a complaint with the Public Access Counselor requesting an opinion on this meeting and another on February 6, 2023. While the response was not as clear as I would have liked, I believe that it justified my position that it was not a legal meeting.
I campaigned on transparency and accountability. Only an informed constituency can hold the board accountable. Therefore, I present the following public justification for my complaint that this meeting was held for the express purpose of hiding actions from the public deemed to be unpopular by the School Board and admin staff.
The Open Door Law:
For an explanation of ODL, please review: https://www.in.gov/pac/files/PAC-Handbook-2017.pdf. See IC 5-14-1.5-6.1 EXECUTIVE SESSIONS to see allowable reasons for executive sessions.
Executive sessions are significant because the ODL permits governing bodies to meet privately under certain circumstances. “Executive session” is defined in I.C. § 5-14-1.5-2(f) and means a meeting from which the public is excluded, except that the governing body may admit those persons necessary to carry out its purpose. The ODL sets out the specific matters about which a public agency can hold an executive session. .... For a complete listing, see Section Two of this guide.(https://www.in.gov/pac/files/PAC-Handbook-2017.pdf, Pg. 9)
(c) A final action must be taken at a meeting open to the public. (d) Public notice of executive sessions must state the subject matter by specific reference to the enumerated instance or instances for which executive sessions may be held under subsection (b). The requirements stated in section 4 of this chapter for memoranda and minutes being made available to the public is modified as to executive sessions in that the memoranda and minutes must identify the subject matter considered by specific reference to the enumerated instance or instances for which public notice was given. The governing body shall certify by a statement in the memoranda and minutes of the governing body that no subject matter was discussed in the executive session other than the subject matter specified in the public notice. (https://www.in.gov/pac/files/PAC-Handbook-2017.pdf, Pg. 22)
This meeting was announced on January 10 by Superintendent Steve Hope with the following statement:
We are looking at January 23 for an executive session. I want to review the referendum with the Winston-Terrell Group and touch on repurposing Chandler and the Model principal.
Please note the number of topics in this statement: 1. Referendum. 2. Repurposing Chandler. 3. Model Principal.
For clarity, Winston-Terrell Group is a public relations firm - they help you market what you are wanting to do. In this case, they help schools win referendums. See https://www.southbendtribune.com/story/opinion/2019/06/29/our-opinion-south-bend-schools-push-for-a-referendum-should-start-with-open-communicatio/45933559/.
On Jan. 13, 2023, the official event was created with the following information: Topic: School Finance
On Jan. 17, 2023, an email was sent out by the Superintendent stating:
We will have an executive session next Monday, January 23 at 5:30 p.m. in the Board Room. The purpose of this meeting will be to discuss the possibilities about going for or not going for the next referendum. Robin Winston and Pat Terrell from the Winston-Terrell Group will be with us to discuss the ins and outs of school referenda. I will recommend that we hire the Winston-Terrell Group if we decide to go for a referendum. We can also use this time to talk about some other efficiencies at Chandler and Model.
On Jan. 24, 2023, the Superintendent stated the following in an email:
Thank you for all the questions and conversation yesterday evening [at the executive session]. ...Referendum Although not unanimous, we had consensus on tentatively moving forward with a referendum. I will bring forth a timeline and then we can discuss this in another executive session.
Therefore, we may by the evidence conclude that at least 3 topics were discussed in this executive session. (That this did occur was told to me in multiple meetings afterwards by people present, including board members). Do they fall under the stated public reason for this meeting that allowed it to be held privately? The minutes are as follows:
Executive Session (Monday, January 23, 2023)
Generated by Teri McCrindle on Tuesday, January 24, 2023
The Executive Session of the Board of School Trustees of Goshen Community Schools was held on Monday, January 23, 2023, at 5:30 p.m., at Goshen Community Schools Administrative Center, 613 E. Purl St., Goshen, IN. Board President Roger Nafziger presided, and Mrs. Teri McCrindle recorded the minutes. Other board members present were Vice President Bradd Weddell, Secretary José Elizalde and member Mr. Mario Garber. Absent were members Mr. Allan Kauffman, Mrs. Maria Sanchez Schirch and Mr. Ryan Glick. Administrators present were Superintendent Dr. Steven Hope, Associate Superintendent Dr. Alan Metcalfe, Assistant Superintendent Dr. Lori Line, and Chief Finance Officer Dr. Robert Evans.
1. Meeting Opening
Procedural: 1.1 Call to Order
2. Executive Session
Discussion: 2.1 Convene in Executive Session
The governing body named above conducted an Executive Session pursuant to Indiana's Open Meetings Law, IC 5-14-1.5-6.1 (10) To train school board members with an outside consultant about the performance of their role as public officials.
3. Meeting Closing
Action: 3.1 Adjournment
As there was no further business to come before the Board, the meeting was adjourned at 7:55 p.m.
Is moving forward with a referendum, discussing a principal change at Model, or repurposing Chandler "training School Board members with an outside consultant about the performance of their roles as public officials"? Does it fall under the requirement that the minutes must certify that no other topics were discussed than what was publicly listed?
I believe the answer is no. This meeting was a violation of ODL on multiple counts. Beyond this, most of these items were acknowledged to be unpopular in conversations between myself and the Superintendent or other board members. The purpose of handling them in executive session was explicitly to avoid allowing the public to know until the decision was made to move ahead.
In the case of the referendum, it was expressed that they would like to do it in an off election year - 2025 - to avoid no voters showing up, even though the school would have to foot the bill. They said it is almost guaranteed to fail in a regular election year vote.
In the case of Chandler closing, it was said repeatedly how unpopular that move was going to be and they had to be very careful how they presented it. It was also stated that the building would have to be repurposed so that a charter school could not be opened at that location. I challenged their decision and forced a vote, but it still was not in compliance with our own board policy.
In the case of Model, the outcry was loud enough that the Admin plan was halted in changing the principal.
Please note the following items from the handbook (among other pertinent points):
Example 5: A local cafe is a popular spot for morning coffee, and several members of a town board are among the regulars. Frequently, the conversation turns to matters of local concern on the agenda for the next board meeting. The group discusses the issues and often decides “what should be done.” This discussion violates the ODL if the board members constitute a majority of the governing body. By deciding issues before the meeting, the board members have deprived the public of the opportunity to hear the debate leading to a decision. (https://www.in.gov/pac/files/PAC-Handbook-2017.pdf Pg. 7-8)
By deciding to pursue a referendum, to support the superintendent in closing Chandler, and in discussing changing principals at Model, the school board deprived the public of the opportunity to hear the debate leading to a decision. This violates ODL.
Example 1: A local public works board meets in executive session before considering a tax proposal because there have been rumors the measure may be challenged on constitutional grounds. Unless litigation is actually pending or threatened in writing, this is a violation of the ODL. (https://www.in.gov/pac/files/PAC-Handbook-2017.pdf, Pg. 9)
Meeting to pursue a property tax referendum is also a violation of ODL as there is no actual written pending or threatened litigation.