Stillwater Area Public Schools violated the state's open meeting law, the state said in an advisory opinion issued Oct. 24.
The opinion was requested by Carl Blondin based on a complaint that a quorum of the District 834 School Board was present at a Finance and Operations Working Group meeting on Aug. 29. A quorum in this case consists of four members. Though the working group regularly includes three school board members, a fourth in attendance means the meeting qualified as a school board meeting and, under state statute, should have been posted as such for the public.
Had the quorum at the Aug. 29 meeting agreed to take action on an issue, it would have bound the seven-member school board, the opinion says.
Blondin provided a video and a transcript of the meeting to the advisory commissioner, the opinion says. These depict the fourth school board member, Riehle, "engaging in a discussion with the committee members, including whether items have been presented to the School Board, an exchange about one-time funding, and a potential form to use to present information to the School Board," Roberts-Davis said in her opinion.
A 15-minute video of the meeting shared with The Bulletin shows board member Tina Riehle, seated in the audience, addressing members of the committee on two separate occasions, with Superintendent Denise Pontrelli and Executive Director of Finance and Operations Kristen Hoheisel responding to Riehle.
Just after the video's seven-minute mark, in the midst of a response to Riehle, Hoheisel says, "I gotta be honest, you're making me a little nervous, because now I have four board members..." Riehle interrupts, saying, "It's open meeting."
Hoheisel responds: "I understand that, but you're... I'm just saying, I get nervous. It's a me thing, but there's four board members..." Riehle interrupts again, continuing her question, which Hoheisel answers.
Minutes of the Aug. 29 meeting submitted by committee chair Liz Weisberg do not acknowledge that Riehle was present at the meeting.
Board members Weisberg, Mark Burns and Shelley Pearson are assigned to the Finance and Operations Working Group for 2019, according to a document on the district's website.
School board member Sarah Stivland responded to the opinion over the weekend on Facebook, adding that Weisberg had invited Riehle to the meeting "specifically because it was an open meeting and so that she would be available to answer any questions that might come up" related to a financial oversight form Riehle has proposed.
Stivland rejected Commissioner of Administration Alice Roberts-Davis's opinion, saying there had been no violation of the open meeting law because no vote had taken place at the meeting.
The Minnesota Department of Administration Data Practices Office can issue non-binding advisory opinions as guidance for the public and government entities or to help clarify a question about the open meeting law or another data practices-related law without court proceedings. The "governing body of a school district," which includes school boards, is considered a public body under state law and is required to follow the open meeting law.
Someone, though not the Department of Administration, can choose to pursue a violation in court. In this case, an advisory opinion is usually given deference. However, a representative with the department said not many people choose to pursue legal action, which is often expensive, in cases of notice violations like this one.
In response to a request for comment, board chair Mike Ptacek sent a statement from the board acknowledging that the opinion said "the Notice provided for School Board committee meetings is not sufficient under the Open Meeting Law to specifically inform the public that Board members, in addition to the designated committee members, may be present at committee meetings."
"In accordance with the Opinion, the School District will immediately revise its Notices on the School District website and in postings," the statement continues. "Under the current School Board, all committee meetings have been open to the public, including the August 29, 2019 Finance and Operations Committee Meeting, which was the subject of the Advisory Opinion. The School Board will continue to welcome the public to all of its meetings, including committee meetings."
Ptacek said an adjusted meeting calendar, which he attached along with the statement, would be posted on the district's website and on the outside windows of the district office's main entrance, 1875 Greeley St. S., in Stillwater.
The school board posts the dates of its regular meetings on the district website. It posts the schedule of committee meetings, including Finance and Operations Working Group meetings, on a bulletin board and "keeps a list of its meetings at its main office," according to the opinion.
As part of the opinion's discussion, the school board commented: "It is undisputed that four School Board members, a quorum, were present at the August 29, 2019, meeting. However, it was a regularly scheduled, properly noticed meeting that was open to the public. Therefore, it is the District’s position that no Open Meeting violation occurred.”
However, the state determined a violation did in fact occur because the board did not provide notice that either a regular or special meeting of the school board would also take place that day.
"Once the fourth School Board member was present to discuss, decide, or receive information as a group relating to the official business of the School Board, the committee meeting also became a meeting of the School Board," the opinion reads.