NEWTON — Multiple members of the Newton Board of Education said the board violated the open meeting law during a two-hour executive session Wednesday night.
The rally, held Wednesday night at 5:30 p.m., was intended to change district rules to allow an athlete to compete in a state tournament after violating the district’s code of conduct, according to four sources familiar with the matter.
Brenna Haines, a member of the Newton Board of Education, said she plans to file complaints with the Kansas attorney general’s office. She said she was threatened to vote a certain way during the Wednesday special board meeting and that the education board violated several state laws governing meetings, including the Kansas Open Meetings Act.
“We holding that meeting, we were under duress,” he said.
At the heart of the matter is a two-hour executive session to discuss matters relating to a student.
According to the school district, board members Matt Treaster, Mallory Morton and Luke Edwards called the meeting Tuesday to discuss a student issue.
State law permits closed-door sessions to discuss confidential student information. Open meeting laws do not allow a government to discuss and make general policies during executive sessions.
Max Kautsch, an attorney whose practice focuses on open meetings law and who represents the Kansas Press Association, explained the Kansas Open Meetings Act.
“The purpose of rejoining the executive session, in general, is to deal with private matters to some extent,” he said. “Making a policy that doesn’t apply to any particular individual doesn’t violate privacy concerns.”
Haines, as well as board members Andy Ortiz and Melissa Schreiber, said board members discussed or elaborated district policy during an executive session or outside of the public meeting, in all of their objections.
“Andy tried to stop him,” Haines said. “Melissa tried to stop him. I personally asked twice before getting up and walking away and walking out. I cut off the conversation and said, ‘If we’re discussing politics, you’re opening these doors.’”
Board Chair Mallory Morton responded to allegations by other board members that the meeting was conducted improperly.
“As you know, I cannot confirm or deny, as I am not legally authorized to discuss the executive session, but I am confident that there were no KOMA [Kansas Open Meeting Act] violations,” Morton said.
Haines departed at 7:00pm and the executive session continued until 8:30pm. She said she did not feel comfortable participating in the actions of the council.
Later, without discussion, Edwards recited a motion that would have changed school policy to allow for deviations from the district’s athletic code of conduct, based on administrative discretion. The change was also made to be retroactive to past decisions and infractions.
That motion was endorsed by board member Dayna Steinmetz and passed shortly thereafter in a 4-2 vote. Ortiz and Schreiber voted against the motion.
Kautsch was asked about the meeting and shared Haines’ view that the action broke the law on open meetings.
“They needed to withdraw on student issues and they needed to go back and create and discuss policy. Not doing so was a violation of KOMA,” she said.
The reason for the meeting
The board was notified via email Tuesday that the district administration had addressed a student issue.
“I received an email at 12:58 that there was a situation with one of our athletes and the administrators were working on a solution but he would not participate in an activity,” Ortiz said.
Superintendent Fred Van Ranken said three board members, Edwards, Morton and Treaster, then called a special board meeting. The notification was sent at 1:51 pm on Tuesday, according to Van Ranken. The meeting was scheduled for 5.30pm on Wednesday.
“I got an email that there was an emergency meeting and I started putting two and two together,” Ortiz said.
Van Ranken declined to provide any information on the circumstances leading up to the meeting, administrative actions or what transpired during an executive session, as this was a student matter.
“The goal was to discuss a student issue about code of conduct policy and what might be considered extenuating circumstances,” Van Ranken said when asked to explain why the meeting was called.
Van Ranken confirmed that the district administration did not request to hold the meeting.
Haines commented on his opinion on why the meeting was held and its discussion.
“There was a student issue that needed to be pursued,” he said. “There is no secret about this. The state participants in the sport are leaving on Friday afternoon and we had to do it right away.
Four sources familiar with the matter confirmed an original story received by Harvey County Now. According to sources, the meeting came about the desire of some board members to consider allowing an athlete to participate in the state wrestling tournament. The high school administration learned that an athlete had used a nicotine product in the school. The code of conduct imposes a 20% season suspension for such a violation.
According to tournament wrestling scoreboards, all of the state-qualified Newton wrestlers entered the tournament as of Friday.
“As coordinator of the Harvey County Drug-Free Youth Coalition, I am very discouraged,” Schreiber said of the meeting and its outcome.
A legal meeting?
The meeting began with confusion as to whether the district could legally hold it.
State law requires BOE members to be given two days’ notice of an extraordinary meeting, unless they waive their right to notice. Two days notice would have meant that the meeting would not be held until Friday.
“Unless otherwise waived, written notice giving the time and place of any extraordinary meeting and the purpose for which it is called shall be provided to each member of the board at least two days before the extraordinary meeting, and no business other than that set out in notice will be dealt with at that meeting,” states the law.
Three board members, Ortiz, Schreiber and Haines, declined to sign the notice waiver.
The board contacted its counsel, John Robb, for advice on whether it could go ahead with meeting with the board members who refused to waive the notice.
Robb told them all seven had to sign the waiver or the district had to wait the two days notice that board members were entitled to.
After further discussions, Kansas Association of School Boards attorney Luke Soba was called and said that only four needed to sign the waiver. The meeting then continued.
“We followed counsel’s advice,” Morton said of the decision to move forward, noting that the Kansas Association of School Boards also represents the district.
Harvey County Now contacted the Kansas Attorney General’s office for advice on whether Wednesday’s meeting constituted a legal meeting. He had not heard from the office at the time this article was published.
Haines said he planned to file a complaint with the attorney general’s office about the lack of two-day notice.
Behind closed doors
The meeting featured an executive session from 18:25 to 20:30
The session included the high school principal and athletic director at various times. The session was adjourned six times, according to the council clerk’s notes.
Journalists were not allowed to attend the executive session. Raised voices were heard regularly from the hall.
Three council members agreed to discuss the events within the session.
“Eventually they talked about politics,” Ortiz said. “I really feel like there’s a bigger issue here that needs to be talked about.”
Ortiz has said several times that he tried to prevent political discussion. He also confirmed Haines’ version of events by saying that he also attempted to disrupt the political discussion. Schreiber also confirmed that the political discussion did happen and that Haines and Ortiz tried to de-escalate the discussion.
Haines said council president Mallory Morton threatened her several times, saying if she insisted on holding the student accountable, district staff or students could be held accountable for any past deviations from policies.
Morton, when asked about Haines’ statement, said she could neither confirm nor deny what happened during the executive session, as it was not legal for her to discuss it.
Schreiber was asked about the swap and didn’t know if it posed a threat.
Haine also claimed a conflict of interest with the vote. Multiple board members who voted for the change had the kids compete in the state wrestling tournament.
“There’s a huge conflict of interest here,” Haines said. “I believe that somewhere in our board policy if you have a conflict of interest you should recuse yourself.”
The BOE has a meeting on Monday 27 February at 7.00pm. The issue is not listed on the discussion agenda.
The Kansas Attorney General’s office is responsible for investigating violations of the Kansas Open Meetings Act.
Members who violate it can be fined up to $500. Violations can also be used as possible grounds for public prosecution of violators, according to the AG website.
The site does state, however, that fines are rare.
There is less literature regarding whether a meeting did not constitute a legal meeting. The statute governing extraordinary shareholders’ meetings does not list the repercussions for its violation.
Edwards was contacted about the story, told when it would be published, and said he intended to answer questions sent by email. He had not replied at the time this article was published. The article will be updated as more information becomes available.
Editor’s note: Harvey County Now, as a policy, does not use anonymous sources. In this case, however, the editorial staff considered the risk of repercussions on the sources as well as the public interest of the information provided by the sources. He decided the information warranted its use, as the information could not be acquired any other way.