Splitting The Board: That Needs To End
By Alex Saitta
October 25, 2010
There is a required law that whenever the district borrows, spends or raises taxes it must have three public readings or votes on the measure. The law requires the meetings be held at least one week apart. This local legislation was passed after the school board passed the Greenville Plan with one vote.
A school board that has public input in mind and possesses a desire to fully inform the public on such public issues should first present the new plan to the public and the board at regular monthly meeting. Then the second reading should be held at the next monthly meeting, where board members debate the plan, suggest changes and the public again gets to speak again. The next monthly or third meeting the board then should take more public input and cast the final vote on the plan.
Going through three readings at the regular monthly meetings, where the public can speak out at all three, the press is there in full force, and the board room is full, would allow the opposition to build. In my opinion the leadership wanted to avoid such flak in this case. They realize the $197 million referendum failed 2 to 1. They surely must realize expanding this plan to $374 million was going to be unpopular.
One of the purposes of the Freedom of Information Act is that public bodies must discuss public issues in public. The FOIA law states if a majority of board members meet that meeting must be open to the public.
To get around the law, on May 20th four board members were asked to attend one meeting at 4:00 pm and four were asked to attend a separate meeting at 6:30 pm. The meetings were held in the back room, with the doors closed. The discussion centered around new borrowing options (an unpopular, but public issue), and changing from taxable to tax exempt bonds. I have 10 pages of handouts on that subject. Both of these things later were used to help fund the second middle school in Easley and the list of additional spending.
By splitting the board and the meetings into two, the leadership took a deliberate step to shut out the public, so they could discuss this public issue in private. These types of meetings started in the Dr. Lee DíAndrea administration, and they need to be ended.
On August 12 a meeting was held at 4:30 pm in the back room again and the doors were closed. The idea of a second middle school in Easley was discussed and borrowing to finance it and other projects was discussed too.
The district did send the press an email notification, so the public was notified. The notice says a business oversight committee meeting would be held, but the topic of the meeting (building a second middle school in Easley and borrowing the money to finance it) was not mentioned in the notice.
I mistakenly thought this was a closed meeting because there was no agenda, it was held in the back room and the doors were closed. Regardless, this was a poor effort of notification/ at openness because the notice didnít explain the purpose of the meeting and the meeting was held in the back room. No more public meetings should ever be held in the back room with the doors closed. All public meetings should be held in the board room with the doors open. Also, every meeting notice should list the topics that will be discussed.
At the September 27 monthly board meeting the plan was presented officially to the board and public as a first reading. The public had the chance to speak to the board.
On October 4, a week later, the leadership then held a special meeting. One, few ever show up to called meetings. Two, public input is not allowed at public meetings. Three, going the special meetings route put the first and last vote only 2 weeks apart. If the 3 readings were held at regular monthly meetings in late September, late October and then late November, the board room would have been full, the public would have had more time to absorb what was going on, plus there would have been public input at all three meetings.
On Oct 11 there was another special meeting schedule, but by this time the public and press was complaining so the leadership held a 90 minute public Q&A on the topic. I praise the leadership for the change, but their initial intent was public input would not occur at the second and third specially called meetings.
I suspect the leadership is also worried the plan could have be derailed if the final vote was taken after the Nov. 2nd election. By then the two Easley at-large members will be phased off the board and there is a possibility the new board will not support expanding the plan again. I suspect they thought there was too much risk in allowing the last vote to be after the election, so they crammed the required 3 readings/ meetings into special called meetings just before the election.
When I questioned why the push to put this plan through so quickly, using the special meetings? The response was they needed to borrow the money now and the project manager needed to know ASAP if we were going with one or two middle schools.
I canít see why the borrowing could not have taken place so three reading at regular monthly meetings could occur. That would have put the final vote only 6 weeks later. The district has $138 million cash sitting in the building account. Whatever expenditures they have in the next six weeks were more than covered.
Neither the current high school or old Gettys will be renovated until the students first move into the new high school, so Iím not sure I buy that final approval couldnít have waited until the late November regularly scheduled board meeting.
In sum I think the evidence supports my point that steps were taken at the May meeting to skirt around the FIOA law and scheduling was used to minimize public knowledge, input and public flak about this expansion of the building plan. Fortunately, we have an aggressive press core and wise citizens, so in the end the issue had a solid public hearing. Going forward, my hope is, those splitting the board meetings to avoid FIOA will end.