When the Harrisonville school board next meets Nov. 18, board critic Chris Bell intends to be there with his video camera.
Just as he was last month.
The videotapes, which Bell is posting online, highlight the distrust that remains months after the school board drew criticism for surveys sent last spring to staff members. Some community members questioned the board’s motives in conducting the survey.
Bell, a former school board member, said he decided to tape the Oct. 21 meeting after an agenda item listed as “board notes” caught his attention. No description accompanied the item, which only intensified Bell’s suspicion that the board is being too secretive.
When the “board notes” item came up, school board member Susie Yoder moved to amend a policy so it would restrict board secretary Susan Brooker to recording in the minutes only the basics required by Missouri’s Sunshine Law: the date, time and place of the meeting, the members present and absent and a record of votes.
Harrisonville School Superintendent Bryan McDonald noted that two readings are required before any policy change, and any action that night would be only the first reading. Yoder’s motion was not seconded, so the board did not vote on the matter.
Brooker later explained that a policy change requires that board members have prior access to the policy so they can read and consider the matter. She said the issue is on the agenda for Nov. 18.
Board President Marie Vallee said the board was simply discussing whether to follow a recommendation of the Missouri School Boards’ Association to do away with transcript-style notes. Vallee said she had learned of that suggested guideline during an MSBA workshop in September.
“We don’t want to hide anything from the public,” Vallee said.
It was also during the MSBA conference that she received instruction on what are called “board notes” or “meeting notes.”
The minutes of each meeting do not become the official record until approved by the board at its next regular meeting. In the meantime, what exists are the “meeting notes” or “board notes,” she said, which are the unofficial record of what transpired.
They are never approved by the board, however.
At the end of May, the board secretary, who is also the superintendent’s secretary, was inundated with requests for copies of the meeting notes, Vallee said. That was the first time she became aware that “meeting notes” even existed, she said.
Brooker said she rarely received such requests until the surveys became a contentious issue, and then she received 15 to 20 requests per meeting. She said she now receives an average of three to five requests per meeting.
It takes her about an hour to go over the notes and redact closed meeting information before they are made available for citizen requests, Brooker said.
Vallee said Bell has every right to videotape board meetings, but said: “I’m not sure why he thinks he needs both.”
Bell said, however, that downsizing the minutes would eliminate the recording of valuable deliberations.
During the time set aside for public comments that night, he told board members it appeared they were looking for “another” way to hide deliberations from the public.
Bell said he asked the board, “Please don’t do this.”
After the Oct. 21 meeting, he decided to videotape all future open meetings and post them on his website, www.HarrisonvilleSchoolBoardWatch.com. He did so for a few minutes on Oct. 29, when the board simply voted to go into closed session.
Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster’s office looked into concerns registered last summer about alleged Sunshine Law violations, but the office closed the case without sanctioning the school board.
Bell, however, remains “very suspicious.”
“What I believe is happening is there’s a movement (by some on the board) to get rid of district Superintendent Bryan McDonald,” Bell said.
He said he’s heard some new board members say they do not like the superintendent.
Moreover, Bell said, the superintendent and board secretary were instructed not to attend the Oct. 29 closed meeting,
He also said the board didn’t give a proper reason for closing the meeting, such as “personnel.” To him, that was another “red flag.”
Vallee responded that the announcement of the closed meeting stated “setting goals for the superintendent,” which seemed an obvious reason that the superintendent should not attend. Legally, such sessions may be limited to board members, she added.
Vallee said both parties remain locked in mutual suspicion, maybe even some “paranoia.”
“I believe we have a trust issue,” she said.