Concerns about transparency and access for the public to provide timely feedback have been raised following changes in the frequency and approach of Hempfield School Board meetings.
At its December reorganization meeting, where two new school board members took office for the first time, the board voted 8 to 1 — with board member Linda S. Johnston the only vote against — to have three instead of six monthly meetings.
The full board meeting has been reduced from twice a month to once a month, with school board chairman Grant Keener saying holding two meetings was not the most efficient way to do business. Committee meetings were reduced from four per month to two per month, with documents involving two committees at each meeting.
Along with this formal change, a change in the approach to meetings was championed by Keener, who served on the board for three years and was first elected president at the December meeting.
“We reserve the right to take action at any time,” Keener said.
Due to these changes, an ongoing and contentious political discussion regarding the accommodation of transgender athletes took place at a lengthy meeting that had been designated for the Buildings and Grounds Committee. In addition, the council approved the district’s draft 2022-23 budget at a committee meeting, a break from the past practice of holding budget votes at full council meetings.
These situations prompted expressions of concern from parents, a school board member and, when contacted by TNL | LancasterOnline, a lawyer specializing in the law of public meetings.
With the introduction of a new board calendar and the realization that significant issues — sometimes unrelated to ongoing committee work — can arise, school board member Jim Maurer said a majority of the board shows up at all committee meetings when normally only committee members are present.
Regarding the discussion of a transgender athlete policy in particular, Maurer released a statement critical of the board.
“Making political decisions, in an unrelated committee meeting, can undermine public confidence in the board’s commitment to transparency,” he wrote in the statement.
Hempfield taxpayer and campaigner Jamie Beth Cohen also expressed concern about the changes. Cohen removed her students from the district at the start of the 2021-22 school year because she did not feel comfortable with her COVID-19 protocols.
“Combining two meetings, two committee meetings… right there – 50% of the public comment time is gone. So again, is this legal? Sure. Is it good for the community? No,” Cohen said.
“Another problem we’ve seen a number of times recently is that you combine two committees, you make the meeting longer, and we see the most controversial topics put at the end of those agendas,” she said. “There are concerns that this is intended to stifle transparency.”
Here’s a look at what happened, along with responses from Keener, Maurer and Melissa Melewsky, a media law attorney for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.
Vote on the budget during the political meeting
At a Feb. 16 meeting of the Policy and Legal/Education and Programs Committee, the council voted 7-0 to approve the district’s 2022-23 draft budget with a 2% property tax increase.
The Pennsylvania Department of Education requires school districts to adopt a draft budget by Feb. 16 to allow time for public comment and edits before final budget approval in June.
Standing committee meetings are normally for discussion, according to district spokeswoman Cheryl Irwin-Bass, and past practice in Hempfield was to vote on the budget at full council meetings. In fact, district committee meeting minutes state that policy, personnel, and legal committee meetings are to provide “the board of directors with a venue to fully review policies, discuss personnel issues, and resolve matters.” legal concerns”.
The draft budget was placed on the committee meeting agenda prior to the meeting.
More vivid: The board held its policy committee meeting a day early to comply with the ministry’s Feb. 16 deadline.
“Keep in mind that a preliminary budget is that…. I know there was a tax increase in the preliminary budget. I would be surprised if it were the same increase in the final budget.
Most budget conversations will take place at finance/construction and land meetings with updates at board meetings, he said.
Melewski: Discussing and even voting on the budget in a committee meeting is not in conflict with the state’s open meeting law “as long as the meeting was properly advertised, open to the public, and an order of the specific day was provided at least 24 hours before the meeting. . The Sunshine Act requires agencies to list all matters to be discussed or dealt with on the agenda and to publish the agenda at least 24 hours before the meeting, and all matters not listed on the agenda are generally prohibited from voting except in rare circumstances. If the tax issue wasn’t on the agenda, it’s a potential Sunshine Act issue.
However, she said, “it may not be good policy to bring up tax issues in meetings where people don’t expect this kind of issue to be discussed.” People won’t necessarily attend a committee meeting or check its agenda for a tax issue if the agency doesn’t typically address that kind of issue at committee meetings. If the public has come to rely on the agency to limit committee meetings to certain topics, it is not in the public interest to act on non-standard issues, as the public is unlikely to be informed or ready to act on the matter in a timely manner. .”
Discuss policy at building and grounds meeting
At a buildings and grounds meeting on Jan. 25, the board continued discussion about developing new language for its sport participation policy to address transgender athletes. This discussion began in April 2021 and has drawn attention and controversy ever since.
Policy discussion was noted on the agenda
More vivid: “We reserve the right to take action at any time.”
Maurer: “It’s harder for board members and the public to follow issues because now every meeting, including committee meetings, is important and I’m afraid the community is missing something and not realizing it. how important every meeting is now.”
Maurer referred to this practice in a statement regarding transparency that he asked to be added to the minutes of the Jan. 25 building and grounds meeting.
Melewski: As long as it’s on the agenda, the council didn’t break any laws by holding a discussion, she said, “but that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do either, from a public policy perspective. The purpose of the Sunshine Act, and the agenda requirement, is to allow people to have expectations about what needs to be discussed. If you put something completely unrelated to the lands on the lands agenda, who would think to look there? It’s the functional equivalent of not providing information about it…. People who would normally look for it in the normal place wouldn’t. If they’re going to do something like that, they’re going to use the meetings for more than general committee business. They have to be upfront about it… I don’t know what their intention is. But if the effect of that action is to diminish public involvement, that’s a Sunshine Act problem, even if it’s not a violation of the law.