Board sets panels evaluating communication

The Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. board has formed two new subcommittees to consider how it might revise its practices regarding public meetings and communication.

The school board voted on Jan. 23 to approve board member appointments to two new subcommittees, one on public engagement and one on meeting agendas.

The public engagement subcommittee includes board members Dale Nowlin, Logan Schulz, and Rich Stenner as chair. The meeting agenda subcommittee includes members Pat Bryant, Jason Major and Todd Grimes as chair.

Indiana’s Open Door Law requires school boards to provide notice of meetings where there is a quorum of board members and to allow the public and media to attend and observe. Committees created by statute to advise the school board and committees appointed directly by the school board or its president must follow the Open Door Law, according to an advisory issued by the Indiana School Board Association.

The school board association also said, “a series of gatherings of less than a majority of the board held within a period of seven days and on the same subject matter may constitute violations of the (Open Door) law under certain circumstances.”

Superintendent Jim Roberts said that the formation of the two groups is based on feedback he’d heard from the board at their last meeting. Both he and board president Nicole Wheeldon said they would like to see recommendations from the two subcommittees in the spring.

“The conversation was around having a flow of meetings, just to get a feel for how they are going, experience them, and then based upon that experience, is then be able to make recommendations from what we are feeling, seeing, hearing,” said Roberts. “And if we can start having recommendations come in in May, we can process those in June, and then our July board meeting, any changes we would have in place to start the new school year.”

“I would call that a deadline,” said Wheeldon. “However, if the team is a highly effective team and can make a recommendation earlier, I’m always happy to hear that.”

In discussing the new subcommittees, Stenner clarified that the groups are temporary.

“In a sense, they’re ad hoc,” he said. “We wouldn’t expect that one of these committees would still be here 10 years from now, like the health trust.”

Roberts confirmed this was the case. “Created out of questions, concerns, need to take a look at a few topics that were on people’s minds,” he said.

BCSC’s board meeting procedures and overall communication with the public were the subject of much discussion during the 2022 school board elections. While candidates generally agreed that these were important topics, they differed in their ideas for how to address them.

Four of the candidates — Eric Grow, Roy West, Major and Schulz — called themselves “Dads 4 Change” and banded together based on common views, including criticism of BCSC’s existing practices regarding communication with the public. Only Major and Schulz were elected.

Grow has been especially critical of BCSC’s public comment procedures for its board meetings and filed a complaint with Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke Britt in August, as he took issue with the board’s decision to only permit comments regarding items listed on the meeting agenda.

Britt recommended in an advisory opinion that BCSC should reconsider its public comment procedures, though he also stated that such opinions do not constitute a mandate.

Another part of meeting procedures that may come under scrutiny is communication regarding the approval of human resources recommendations such as new hires, resignations, retirements, transfers or leaves. For the most part, these recommendations are voted on by the board at the end of the meeting without discussion of what changes are included in the approval.

However, a significant appointment will often be discussed in more depth and voted on at the beginning of a meeting. For instance, at the Jan. 23 meeting, Roberts introduced McDowell Education Center Director Megan Shaff as the school corporation’s intended appointment for the new title services director, described her background in education and other qualifications, and then put her appointment to a vote by the board, who approved it.

Later in the meeting, as the board considered other human resources recommendations, Major suggested that the board might consider providing a list to the public that would include some information on the changes being considered but not mention individuals by name.

“When I sat out there, it really wasn’t clear to me what was being looked at,” he said. “And when you look at it from our perspective, in the board packet, it’s easy to vote yes for these, but it’s hard for them (the public) to understand why. … Maybe we could just say, ‘This time we had three maternity leaves, two retirements, and we hired four teachers.’”

Wheeldon said that this would be a good suggestion for the agenda subcommittee to discuss.

Indiana’s Open Records law states the list of human resource recommendations that the board votes on each meeting is a public document and is available to the media and the public upon request.