Some Indiana schools break open door law with little consequence

Schools face few repurcussions

INDIANAPOLIS - The Call 6 Investigators have uncovered some central Indiana school districts breaking the law and not suffering significant consequences, angering parents and taxpayers who are calling for change.

Indiana's Open Door Law is designed to keep public meetings open to the public, but a three-month investigation from Call 6 Investigator Kara Kenney found some holes in the law.

For example, Hoosiers have no guaranteed right to speak at public meetings, with the exception of budget hearings and a few other instances.

"They’re taxpayers. They're citizens of the county or school board. They think they should be given a right to speak, but the law doesn't provide that," said Joe Hoage, Indiana public access counselor.

Hoage's office has handled 94 Open Door Law complaints since July 2010, 21 percent of them against school boards, where those elected make decisions about the future of children and how tax dollars are spent.

Of the 94 complaints received by Hoage's office about school boards, 9 percent were substantiated by Hoage.

The most common accusation is failure to provide notice for public meetings and executive sessions.

When there is a violation, the public access counselor can only issue advisory opinions and has no power to penalize school districts.

"Any agency can ignore any opinion we issue," Hoage said. "You will see the same formal complaints filed over and over and over again."

Leslie Hanson, co-president of the Greencastle League of Women Voters, filed a complaint against the Greencastle Community School Corporation alleging they failed to keep months' worth of the school board’s executive session minutes.

"They weren't keeping minutes, formal minutes of their meetings," said Hanson. "Our school board was meeting for long periods of time in executive session for two to three hours, and I was concerned about that."

The public access counselor found Greencastle school leaders violated the open door law by failing to keep the minutes, a law he says is crucial to shining the light on what school leaders are up to.

"It's where your tax money is going," said Hoage. "You’re a citizen, and the government should be open to the public."

Greencastle has the most recent violation of any Indiana school board, according to Hoage.

The Call 6 Investigators contacted Greencastle Superintendent Lori Richmond for an on-camera interview, but she declined an initial request and ignored follow-up emails from Kenney.

School board members' email addresses and contact information ia not listed on their website, and Richmond did not respond to requests for board members' contact information.

Kenney showed up to a public school board meeting. After the nearly three-hour meeting, Kenney asked to speak with Michael Dean, president of the school board.

"I’m really in a hurry," Dean said before walking away from Kenney.

Other Greencastle school board members refused to comment about the Open Door Law violation, as well as Richmond.

"We’re doing a story about transparency in government and you’re not going to talk to us?" asked Kenney. "Why won’t anyone talk to us?"

Greencastle school board members are appointed, not elected.

A new law gives judges more teeth against Open Door Law complaints. The courts can issue a $100 fine for the first violation and a $500 fine for each additional violation, but it is up to the taxpayer to go after that penalty, and the taxpayer has to prove the public official intentionally violated the law.

"I think it's hard to know people's intent," said Hanson.

In order to issue a civil penalty, the public access counselor must also have an advisory opinion in place against the agency involved, saying it violated the Open Door Law. Hanson said the new law doesn’t help her much in this case.

"I was denied access to minutes that don't exist, so I don't think it's necessary for me to pursue it any further," said Hanson.

Mike Berglund filed a complaint against the Noblesville School District alleging they failed to provide a 48-hour notice for a meeting. The public access counselor found Noblesville schools did violate the Open Door Law.

"It was a last resort, quite frankly," said Berglund. "As a taxpayer, you want to know your money's being spent effectively and efficiently."

The new law went into effect after the violation, so Berglund can't seek fines against the school district.

Sharon Trisler, spokeswoman for Noblesville schools, did not respond to a request for an on-camera interview in time for this story, but she said the issue had been fixed.

"The advisory opinion we received was in regard to the formatting of our public notice of an executive session nearly a year ago," Trisler wrote in an email to RTV6 "We since have reformatted our notices as recommended. Other than the formatting of the notice, the executive session you are referring to was advertised in a timely fashion."

Trisler also emphasized their school board meetings, including public sessions and executive sessions, are advertised as prescribed by Indiana law, and they've recently begun including them in electronic newsletters to families.

Taxpayers said Indiana law falls short in other ways, too. When it comes to speaking out, Indiana law doesn’t guarantee the right to be heard at public meetings, only to observe and record it.

"I think Indiana's Open Door Law needs to be more specific," said Berglund. "I can’t go into a school board meeting and be given the information in advance to provide informed comment."

The Call 6 Investigators found at least 15 states, including Nebraska and North Carolina, give citizens the right to speak at most public meetings.

The Call 6 Investigators also surveyed two-dozen central Indiana school districts and found all allow comment, but almost all limit when and how long people can speak, usually two to three minutes.

Our survey found very few school boards take comment on specific agenda items, but most allow comment at the very beginning or very end of the meeting.

"If you let them speak at the beginning, they’re kind of speaking blindly," said Hoage. "If you only let them speak at the end, the agency's already conducted the vote."

The Call 6 Investigators took our findings to Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, chair of the education committee.

"It’s like you're just letting me say, and then ignoring me, and I can see frustrations with that," said Behning. "It's very important that the public have access and know what's going on in our schools."

Behning said lawmakers should not micromanage school boards, but that there should be some consistency with how school boards conduct their meetings.

"It should be consistent across the state," said Behning. "To have one school do it this way, another do it that way and have such diversity, no one knows what to expect."

Behning said he was surprised to find out that Hoosiers have no guaranteed right to speak at most public meetings.        

"I wasn’t aware of that," he said. "I would find that surprising."

Behning said that in some cases, the Open Door Law needs teeth.

"The public has a right to have their opinion heard," said Behning.

In a written response to the public access counselor, Richmond said the Greencastle school district is making improvements, including keeping meeting minutes.

At the board meeting attended by the Call 6 Investigators, Hanson appeared before the board and requested they post more information online. Board members said they would consider it.

"We have to know what's happening at the meetings," said Hanson. "We have to know why decisions are being made and what decisions are being made. I think it's really important."

Berglund and Hanson said they both plan to attend future board meetings and push for more accountability and transparency.

"We need to put better requirements in the Open Door Law to ensure the school districts are providing the public with information so they can be informed," said Berglund. "I think we deserve that."

Hoage said school board members can be held accountable at the voting booth.

Click here to see if your school district has violated the Open Door Law:
http://www.in.gov/pac/2330.htm
 

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