Steamboat Springs The Steamboat Springs School Board violated the state's Open Meetings Law when it failed to properly announce the topic of a closed-door meeting Jan. 8, 2007, the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled Thursday.
The ruling was in response to an appeal from the Steamboat Pilot & Today, which filed suit against the district in January 2007 about the disputed executive session. A district court judge ruled in favor of the School Board in a March 2007 ruling; the Pilot & Today appealed that decision. Thursday's ruling by the Court of Appeals overturned the ruling of the District Court.
In its suit, the Pilot & Today accused the School Board of violating Open Meetings Law when it went into executive session to discuss the then-controversial staff surveys of district administrators.
Open Meetings Law requires public bodies to cite the specific provision that allows them to meet in executive session, and public bodies must identify the particular matter to be discussed in secret in as much detail as possible. During the Jan. 8, 2007, meeting, the School Board said it was going into executive session to discuss a personnel matter regarding "access to information."
The Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that the "notice was deficient in failing to state that the executive session would concern the release of the survey results. In addition, the notice was deficient in not identifying that the 'personnel matter' was specifically the performance of the superintendent."
Because the executive session was not convened properly, the Court of Appeals ruled that the minutes from the closed-door meeting should have been released. As part of Thursday's ruling, the School Board has been ordered to release the unredacted transcript of the Jan. 8, 2007, executive session.
Similarly, the Court of Appeals agreed with the Pilot & Today that the School Board failed to announce its intention to confer with its attorney during the executive session. A transcript of the executive session revealed that the School Board sought specific legal advice during the closed-door meeting that had been announced only as a "personnel matter" regarding "access to information."
In a special concurrence, Court of Appeals Judge Russell Carparelli disagreed with the finding of a notice violation, but he still concluded that the School Board violated Open Meetings Law by improperly making a policy decision behind closed doors with no public vote or public discussion. That decision, Carparelli wrote, came when board members directed former Superintendent Donna Howell to give a copy of the staff survey results to board members. Carparelli also concluded that the entire discussion behind closed doors Jan. 8, 2007, was illegal because it did not actually involve a "personnel" matter, but rather involved the board's desire to keep its views about the survey results secret.
"We're pleased the Court of Appeals recognized the School Board's failure to meet the letter of the law," said Suzanne Schlicht, publisher of the Steamboat Pilot & Today. "We cannot underestimate the importance of Open Meetings Law to the health and transparency of a democracy. We hope Thursday's ruling sends a message to all public bodies that there is no compromising when it comes to conducting the people's business."
The School Board also has been ordered to pay the legal fees incurred by the Pilot & Today in pursuing the case. The School Board has 45 days to ask for another Court of Appeals hearing or to appeal the ruling to the Colorado Supreme Court.
"The board will review the decision with its legal counsel and that of the Colorado Association of School Boards in the near future to determine the next course of action consistent with the district's best interest, as well as that of the taxpayers," current School Board President Robin Crossan said Thursday night.
"It's unfortunate that the statute gives attorneys fees to the newspaper but would not give the district its fees if the district had prevailed."
Crossan was not a member of the School Board during the time of the illegal executive session. That board consisted of Denise Connelly, John DeVincentis, Pat Gleason, Jeff Troeger and Jerry Kozatch. Gleason voted against going into the Jan. 8, 2007, executive session.