The Grandview Heights school board just finished their annual “retreat” and again this year they took that word in the full literal meaning – they went 20 miles out of the city to a cabin in the woods. They did the same thing last year, and the way they did it has me wondering, what is going on at these meetings? They did a sketchy change at the last minute to add an “executive session for an extended period of time”, just after I asked if a member of the public could attend. What do the Open Meeting Laws of Ohio say about this kind of obfuscation of the agenda, and taking the meetings away from the city?
Retreat meetings have a long history for private businesses, it takes the participants out of the everyday office environment and out into a vacation spot, often a resort or hotel. The idea is that a change of location might break some of the inhibitions that prevent good brainstorming. The alcoholic content of the refreshments at these meetings are par for the course (and golf courses are usually in the mix). There is one important factor for these retreats for private businesses – all of the stakeholders are present at the meetings. Public bodies have a big difference – they are supposed to be open to the public, in the case of school boards the parents and other community members are supposed to be participants in any decision making process. A retreat that leaves the community – more than 20 miles – make it highly improbable for the public or press to attend.
The Open Meeting Laws
I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t pretend to know all of the fine points of the Open Meeting laws. I did spend some time reading the Sunshine Law handbook, available on the web for download. The relevant section starts on page 80 with definitions of “public bodies” and meetings (the Grandview board fits this category of governmental body). On page 88 the places where public meetings should be held are listed:
The meetings should be held in a public building.
The meetings should be held inside the jurisdiction of the body.
The meetings should be held in an ADA compliant building.
The agenda* for the school board’s Special Board Meeting on Sunday, February 9, 2014, said that the meeting was to be held at 2670 Little Darby Creek Road, London, Ohio. There is no image of this address on Street View. Satellite view shows some woods. After some asking around, I was told that this place is a privately owned cabin in the woods. There is no public listing of this address on the net for any meeting hall, rental facility, or even cabin for rent. This is not a public building. Unless Grandview has done some big annexation we all didn’t know about, this place is not inside the jurisdiction of the school board. I don’t know if the building has ADA compliance, but nobody who I talked to said anything about seeing wheelchair ramps or ADA compliant rest rooms. It’s a cabin in the woods (The ADA requirement is a federal law, but that means it should be followed the same as state laws).
What does the City Council do for a retreat?
The city had it’s 2014 retreat at the Dawson building, 1114 Dublin Road. The year before at an office on Grandview avenue. The city has the same multi-hour meetings to do long range planning, but they always have the door open to members of the community, quite often there is a reporter present from the newspapers, and they don’t leave the city. The buildings they hold the meetings in are ADA compliant. I asked a former city council member why they never held meetings in a vacation destination like a cabin somewhere. He said that the Mayor has made it very clear – the laws say to stay inside the city, in a public building, and the city council must follow the laws.
What is going on in the woods?
I have always wondered what happened at these meetings – being in the room when the board members are talking about long term plans for the school seems like it would give anyone interested in school policy a heads up on actions that might occur far in the future. Very interesting stuff. When the agenda for the retreat meeting as sent out, I noticed the address of the meeting was for far out of town near London. I emailed board president Douglass, asking if it would be OK to attend this meeting. I knew the answer already – all official meetings of the board are open to the public. I got the following answer from Douglass:
This is a open meeting and the public is welcome to attend. I anticipate going into executive session for an extended period of time and that portion of the meeting is not open to the public.
First, note that the agenda* of the meeting, submitted to the public and the newspapers, made no mention of going into executive session. In all other meeting agendas that I have found there is specific mention of the executive session, and the topic of business that will be discussed inside is made public, as required by the laws of Ohio. Also, the board had the same type of meeting last year. The meeting notes show that the board never went into executive session. Quite obviously what was happening was that Douglas was changing the agenda of the meeting.
The Open Meeting laws are very clear that this is not to be done. If he could change the agenda of the meeting without notice, there was nothing to prevent Douglas from calling the meeting to order, immediately going into executive session, removing everyone except board members from the room, then hold the meeting for the next 4 hours. At the end of the meeting he could call the meeting back to regular session, and adjourn. I emailed Douglass, and asked him to explain how he could change the agenda of the meeting and add an executive session without formal announcement. His complete reply was this –
Mr. Wagner, The simple answer is “b. other matters that may come before the Board.” Grant Douglass
The Open Meeting laws are very clear on this matter – how the board can set an executive session in the agenda. A very short list of possible topics can be discussed in executive session. The specific topic that will be discussed in the executive session must be announced – printing out a laundry list of all the topics is not allowed. By using the line “other matters before the board” as an excuse to do anything he wants, Douglass makes a mockery of the Open Meeting laws.
Following the rules isn’t hard
I’m not asking for much from the school board. Send out an agenda that is detailed and complete. Stick to that agenda in the meetings, don’t hold surprise executive sessions. Hold the board meetings inside the city of Grandview, in a public building that is ADA compliant. Apparently this current board has trouble following these simple rules. In the past, the board has not had any issues following the Open Meeting laws. I don’t know why this group thinks they are special flowers who need to run off to the woods.
Strategic Compensation on the agenda of the board
I was reading the minutes from the Feb. 9 meeting, and found this:
Short Term and Long Term Goals for the School District: Each member of the Board discussed his/her short term and long term goals moving forward. Goals discussed included expanding teachers reading certification to K-4, understanding staff roles, defining and implementing world class curriculum and instruction, developing a process for strategic compensation, researching competitive administrative pay, researching more opportunities for shared services and focusing on socialization and acceptance of all students
Strategic compensation is the name given to teacher pay schemes that use some sort of evaluation, including evaluation based on student test results. It is a very controversial subject (as Reynoldsburg found out). More on this later. *Full Agenda as sent out by the school on Feb. 6th, 2014.
The Grandview Heights City School District Board of Education will meet in a Special Board Meeting on Sunday, February 9, 2014, from 1:30 to 5:30 p.m., at 2670 Little Darby Creek Road, London, Ohio 43140, for the following purposes:
a. General discussion, but not limited to possible goals for the Board of Education and the District for 2014 and beyond
b. Other matters that may come before the Board
Hayley Head Executive Assistant to the Superintendent Grandview Heights City School District