WARSAW — There is plenty of ambiguity and confusion to go around in light of a recent report that accused Warsaw Community Schools of violating state law when it held two meetings last week to try to ratify a contract with the teacher’s union.
The WCS board of trustees met last Thursday with the purpose of signing the teacher’s master contract. While state law indicates that media must be notified at least 48 hours ahead of time of such a meeting, Ink Free News received no notification. In addition, voting on Thursday, Nov. 15, was initially done by teleconference, an act that had at least one media outlet crying foul.
“The Open Door Law does allow members of a governing body to participate in a public meeting via electronic means,” said Steven Key, the executive director and general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association. “But that individual is not counted toward the quorum for the meeting, and may not vote on any action taken during the open meeting. They can partake in the discussion, but that’s it.”
Key said that when the board met in person, with four of the seven members later in the day, it may still have been in violation since the meeting may not have qualified as an emergency. He said if the contract needed to be signed to avoid a teacher walkout, perhaps the term emergency would have been appropriate.
“Emergency meetings are designed to take care of actual or threatened disruption of the governmental activity or actual or threatened injury to person or property,” Key said. “The emergency meeting allows the governing body to meet without giving 48 hours notice of the meeting as normal under the Open Door Law. The governing body does have to give media outlets that requested before the Jan. 1 to receive notice of meeting the same notice given to the governing body members of the emergency notice.”
The school board voted a third time to approve the contract at the regular meeting Monday night, Nov. 19. After the meeting, Superintendent Dr. David Hoffert and Heather Reichenbach, president of the board, said they felt they gave adequate notice.
“Yes, it was posted both online and out at the board,” said Hoffert. “Again, we wanted to make sure we went through the right procedures, so we voted again here today.”
“We advertised as we have in the past when we’ve ratified the contract,” she said. “We followed our usual protocol.”
The school corporation stated publicly last week that voting by teleconferencing is permitted in its bylaws, which state “each Board member must either be physically present or participate in the meeting by using a means of communication that permits all other members participating in the meeting and all members of the public present at the place where the meeting is being conducted to communicate simultaneously with each other during the meeting. A member who participates as described above is considered to be present at the meeting.”
Key said Tuesday, Nov. 20, that the bylaw may be patterned after state agencies who allow for the exception and said the provision “does not apply to a local school board.”
Timothy S. Shelly, counsel for the school corporation, did not respond to requests for comment left in voicemails at his office.
Reichenbach said the board wanted to make sure everything was done properly, which is why the board again voted on Monday. “If there are any questions, they should be put to rest tonight with this vote,” she said after the regular monthly meeting. “We’re not going to mess around. We have tried to dot our I’s and cross our T’s by voting three times now. We want our teachers to be paid.”