No emails for Mitchell school board as the group tries to follow lawThe Mitchell Board of Education is struggling with revisions to a communications policy designed to keep board members from running afoul of state open-meetings laws.
By: Ross Dolan, The Daily Republic
The Mitchell Board of Education is struggling with revisions to a communications policy designed to keep board members from running afoul of state open-meetings laws.
It has generally been accepted that telephonic communication is allowable between no more than two board members, board member Dana Price said, but current board policy specifically prohibits emails.
Earlier this week, the board crafted a first reading update that loosens the policy — but only a little. Under the proposed policy change, telephone calls and text messaging would be permitted between no more than two board members. Emails would still be out.
Since an informal gathering of three or more board members could constitute an illegal meeting (any time a quorum of members discusses official business, it’s considered a meeting), the twoperson limitation avoids a potential electronic meeting, as well as the appearance of impropriety.
The proposed policy change does not specify the allowed uses of text messaging, but board President Brenda Freidel said texting would only be used for “planning and logistics.” Practically speaking, those uses might include notification that a board member will be late for a meeting, or a request for a return call.
Freidel said a total e-mail ban assures that communications won’t be forwarded to parties for which they weren’t intended.
“Misunderstandings can happen in an e-mail message and they can be misconstrued,” she said.
Davison County State’s Attorney Pat Smith said he admires the board’s concerns about potential open-meetings violations, but merely forwarding a board member’s e-mail to another would not constitute a violation.
“I wonder if they are eliminating a very valuable communications tool,” he said of e-mail use.
The possibility for a violation would exist, however, if there was e-mail conversation among a quorum of board members about an official board matter. In that same vein, the use of Internet chat rooms and instant messaging could be fertile ground for potential abuse, Smith said.
A similar point was made by board member Eric Christensen at the most recent board meeting.
“I think you have to eliminate the use of any social media like Twitter or Facebook, which is out there for anyone to see.”
The board hesitated, however, about the need to get that specific.
In a sense, Superintendent Joe Graves said, the proposed changes would tighten board policy by spelling out what type of electronic communication is permitted. Under the current policy, he said, an argument could be made that communications on Twitter or Facebook are acceptable.
He said the no-exceptions e-mail prohibition is simply the board’s way of “stepping 3 feet back from the line and making sure they have no problem at all.”
Graves said transparency of board operations is a concern nationwide.
“The huge change in communications has had the unintended effect of leading to unintended board meetings, or violating the spirit of the laws, and the Mitchell board has to struggle with it, as do all boards.”
Graves called the texting options considered by the board “a new compromise with a new technology.”
A quorum of board members meeting together for dinner or to celebrate a birthday wouldn’t be an open-meetings violation, unless those board members discuss official school board business.
Board member Theresa Kriese told her colleagues that no policy will ever cover all possibilities.
“One thing we need to keep in mind is that we cannot set policy for every possible integrity or trust issue we might have,” she said.
Future changes were not ruled out.
Whatever final changes are made to board rules, they aren’t set in stone, said Christensen, who noted, “All policies are reviewable.”