School boards can still be held accountable in districts where members are appointed

Watchdog group encourages discussion with board

INDIANAPOLIS - Lawmakers, watchdog groups and taxpayers are reacting to a Call 6 investigation that exposed holes in the state's Open Door Law.

The law is designed to ensure that public meetings remain public, but Call 6 Investigator Kara Kenney found some school districts violating the law without facing consequences.

One way that school board members can be held accountable is through elections, but people who live in Greencastle can't make that choice because their board is appointed, not elected.

The Greencastle Community School Corp. is one of 15 school boards out of 290 statewide in which members are appointed.

Taxpayers contacted the Call 6 Investigators out of frustration, claiming they can't get answers from the board.

When Kenney recently went to a public board meeting, she tried to talk to the board and superintendent about a recent violation of the Open Door Law.

Michael Dean, president of the school board, declined to speak with the Call 6 Investigators after the meeting, saying, "I'm really in a hurry."

Julia Vaughn, of Common Cause Indiana, a government watchdog group, said having school board members elected doesn't ensure there won't be issues.

"Having the option to vote in or out certain people on the school board does help people feel like they have an outlet for frustration," Vaughn said. "Electing people doesn't guarantee you're not going to have any problems with the school board."

There are other ways for those who live in districts where board members are appointed to express their opinions.

"I think certainly attending the meetings, trying to speak up, just trying to positively engage with things like letters to the editor in the local newspaper," Vaughn said.

Unlike 15 other states, Indiana law does not guarantee the right to speak at most public meetings, only to observe and record.

Sen. Beverly Gard, R-Greenfield, authored a bill adding penalties for Open Door Law violators, but the Call 6 investigation revealed the burden is on the taxpayer to prove the official did so intentionally.

"Indiana has a pretty strong set of statutes dealing with public access," Gard said, adding that she gets more complaints about school boards not being transparent than other types of government.

"Any time you talk about issues with our children, it tends to be more emotional. That may be the reason," Gard said.

Gard is retiring, but said she hopes other lawmakers will continue to update the law, requiring school boards be transparent, and hold them accountable when they are not.

The Call 6 Investigators found that many school board members don't list their contact information online, but Gard said she thinks that should be a requirement for public officials. 

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