School Board Muzzle Eased

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An unwritten policy suggesting Payson Unified School District board members funnel questions from the media or the public to the superintendent or board president evolved Tuesday as some board members pushed for more communication.

The resulting patchwork philosophy reflected each board member’s fundamentally different idea of how an elected official should talk with the public.

Most board members have taken phone calls from residents, and will continue taking phone calls from residents. They now can choose whether they want to talk to reporters. They also might hold a public forum if a “hot topic” arises.

In March, the school district’s attorney told the board that members who talked to a Roundup reporter about their thoughts on education reform nearly violated the open meeting law.

A third party can violate the law by asking four board members both what they think about a particular issue and telling each member what the others said. The law is intended to ensure that elected officials make decisions in public.

The March discussion spurred the unwritten agreement among board members that they would direct questions from the media or members of the public to board president Rory Huff, or to the superintendent.

Huff said Tuesday that members Matt Van Camp and Richard Meyer asked that the board revisit the policy. The two board members pushed for more communication, although in different ways, while Huff continued to advocate for referring questions to the superintendent.

Board member Barbara Underwood said she supported the idea of a forum, especially for hot topics, and member Viki Holmes noted the district already has in place policies that guide communication.

Van Camp revolted against the previous unwritten agreement, saying, “I’m not going to give up my right to tell voters what I think.

think.”

He said he attended an open meeting law presentation by the state attorney general, who said that elected officials can talk to the media as long as the discussions don’t involve the opinions of other board members.

“If someone wants to test my integrity — bring it on,” Van Camp said.

Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard wrote in a legal opinion of the open meeting law that the stance of non-communication “undermines the purpose” of it, and that “media reports about the work of public bodies supports the interest of open government, which is the same purpose that the (open meeting law) serves.”

Huff told Van Camp that he “needs” to require, as a prerequisite to speaking to the media, that any article clarify an opinion as personal and not representative of the board.

“I don’t think the newspaper or anybody else would think I was speaking for the board,” Van Camp said.

Meyer pushed for the board to allow community members to agendize questions to allow for an interactive discussion. Parents want to ask follow-up questions; they want to know the opinions of the board, Meyer said.

He added that the article in question quoted him most extensively. “I felt like I was at a disadvantage,” Meyer said, because he didn’t discover the opinions of other board members.

The open meeting law prevents the board from discussing any topic not specifically on the agenda, which means the board can’t respond at a meeting to public comments.

Huff said the board’s bylaws prohibit it from entertaining the idea of citizens placing items on the agenda. Superintendent Casey O’Brien said while the public doesn’t have the right to do that, it’s not illegal. However, very few school boards allow it, he added.

Huff said that “a strong orator” could influence or mislead the board. He wondered if corporations like General Motors allow shareholders to ask questions, and worried that administrators would be “scrambling” for answers they may not have.

“You’ll know if I’m for or against it by my vote,” Huff said.

Board members generally agreed that having forums for “hot topics,” like the future of the agriculture program for instance, was a good idea.

“So Richard, you want to have forums?” asked Huff. “I’ll be sick that day,” he quipped.

Several board members said they talk with members of the public about questions or concerns. Meyer said he’d like to be included in those conversations because the board would benefit from it.

“I just hoped whoever was calling me was calling everyone,” joked Underwood.

Existing policy directs board members to talk with the media “concerning the programs and activities of the district as well as matters pending before the board.”

The district’s policy manual also directs board members to pass public complaints to the school administration, and then the superintendent if necessary. The policy does not appear to address public suggestions or dialogue, although citizens can make comments at public meetings. People can also ask to place items on the agenda, although the board president and superintendent create it.

The Arizona School Boards Association directs board members, in its ethics code, to “seek systematic communication between the board and students, staff and all elements of the community.”

Patty Wisner, a parent who read a letter to the board, calling it to examine its methods of teaching, which spurred the article that asked members about their views on education reform, said a public forum is a great idea.

“All you have to do is look at the number of parents that attend board meetings to realize that it is not being used as a forum,” she said.

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