Public access to meetings, review of budget on agenda at Pike R-III school board meeting

From left: Pike R-III school board member Tommy Beauchamp and Clay Lockard, superintendent Mark Harvey, and board president Bob Danuser at Thursday’s special board meeting. (photo by Adam Thorp/Louisiana Press-Journal)

The pressing issues facing Clopton’s school board are still pending after a special board meeting Thursday night.

That’s not necessarily a surprise. Bob Danuser both said that any decision on possible budget cuts for the district would be made over the course of several meetings. That process will continue, Danuser said, at the board’s next meeting on Monday, March 18, at 6 p.m.

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The public portion of the meeting began with a presentation by Amy Clendennen, the school board’s attorney and a lawyer at Clayton, Mo., law firm Tueth Keeney. She laid out the obligations of board under Missouri’s Sunshine Law, which governs access to government meetings and records. She presented and took questions from the board, with the proviso that her comments should not be taken as legal advice or as a take on a particular situation.

“The reason I’m here is to try to address some of the questions, concerns that have been raised at some of the other board meetings, that are out there on social media and other places. The board asked me, in the interest of transparency and communicating with you all, about what is and isn’t appropriate to discuss in open session versus closed session, what should public comment with the board should look like, should there be an exchange of conversation or not, those kinds of issues,” Clendennen said.

At recent board meetings, members of the board and the public had raised questions about whether decisions to consider the superintendent’s contract extension had been properly flagged for board members on the agenda posted in advance of the meeting.

“Is there any requirement,  which I’m assuming there’s not, in board communications prior to a meeting about what personnel are going to be discussed?” board member Clay Lockard asked Clendennen.

“There’s no legal requirement,” Clendennen said. “When you set the agenda, you’ll let the other board members know the details of what’s going to be on the agenda, but there’s no requirement that you actually post it.”

At February’s regular school board meeting, speakers during the public comment period complained that they got no response from the board to their questions and comments.

“The purpose of the meetings are to conduct board business meetings, and the purpose of those meetings are to conduct board business. It shouldn’t be a dialogue, a conversation with members of the public,” Clendennen said.

Clendennen pointed to several other venues where those conversations could take place: members of the public could send in correspondence to the board, ask to have an item put on the board’s agenda, or the board could opt to host a town hall meeting.

There were, Clendennen added, legal problems introduced if board members responded to questions from the public.

“I hated this when I first got on the [Webster Groves, Mo.] school board, because somebody would stand up and give this impassioned statement and you’d just have to sit there and ignore them and you feel so rude, but you really can’t respond in a meeting because if its an issue that wasn’t on the agenda, first of all, you’re violating the Sunshine Law if you start having a conversation about it,” Clandennen said.

After Clendennen’s presentation, Harvey presented the board and meeting attendees with information about rate increases this year for the district’s health insurance plans and a 31-page spreadsheet laying out the district’s financial situation.

The balance of the meeting was spent with Harvey moving through the spreadsheet line by line.

The district faces a projected deficit of more than $421,000 this school year, according to the information presented by Harvey.

Thursday’s meeting did not feature time for public comment, though Danuser did circulate sheets of paper on which people could write questions or comments.

Greg Talbert, who has publicly protested his removal from the school board over repeated absences, attended the meeting and sat in the front row, feet away from the board. Talbert has said he hopes to raise the issue of his removal with the board, on the grounds that the board had effectively excused his absences when it asked him to work as a coach for a Clopton team whose games overlapped with the board’s meetings.

See next week’s edition of the Louisiana Press-Journal for more reporting on the developing situation at the Pike R-III School Board.

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