Chesterton Tribune



Indiana Public Access Counselor: Duneland School Board 'asleep at the wheel' when it closed district to transfers

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Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke H. Britt wrote in a formal opinion released April 8 that the Duneland School Board was “asleep at the wheel” in its duties when it adopted its current transfer student policy.

The Opinion was in response to an Open Door Law complaint filed by John Doyle, a Duneland resident whose grandchildren live just outside the Duneland School District and will not be able to attend the Duneland Schools come fall, since the Board accidentally ended open enrollment for out-of-district transfer students by passing over 100 pages of policy updates at once in its August 2018 meeting.

Britt’s Opinion reads, “It is troubling to this office and should be to any civilly engaged person that a governing body would vote to approve around 100 pages of policy updates without an understanding or awareness of the contents or regard for the results.”

Britt continued, “This complaint illustrates what happens when officials, who are entrusted with authority over the policies that affect the everyday lives of citizens (i.e., where children attend school) are inadvertently or intentionally asleep at the wheel.”

As first reported in the Chesterton Tribune, the School Board discovered in January that Policy 5111, the policy determining legal settlement in the district, which used to have language allowing transfer students at Duneland, was changed in a round of policy updates that contained over 40 amended policies in over 100 pages of material at the Board’s Aug. 7, 2018 meeting.

The Board didn’t intend to close the district last year--in fact, at its September meeting, the Board members each shared their opinions on the policy and promised to research the impact of transfer students at Duneland to act on the matter in early 2019. None of them realized at the time that they had closed the district.

Board President Brandon Kroft told the Tribune that the change was “inadvertent,” and he has no reason to believe anyone knew about it beforehand or that the change was slipped in on purpose. He also said the Board was planning to close enrollment in early 2019, anyway.

In response to the realization that the district was closed, the Board held a special meeting Feb. 28 to allow public comment on the policy where 15 members of the public shared.

At that meeting, the Board affirmed by consensus that the district would stay closed until they have found a new permanent superintendent of schools, but they did not revote on the matter.

The Open Door Law requires public entities to conduct their business in the public eye, allowing members of the public to observe and record their proceedings at all times, except when they discuss certain exempted matters such as pending litigation or personnel matters.

Doyle’s Feb. 26 complaint alleged that the Board violated the Open Door Law when it closed the district to transfer students because the decision was made without a chance for the public to weigh-in and without the public’s knowledge. Doyle didn’t dispute that the action took place at a proper meeting, according to Britt.

Duneland Schools was given an opportunity to respond to the allegation, and did so in a March 14 statement from Duneland’s Attorney Charles Parkinson. Parkinson contended that the School Board’s meeting agendas with Policy 5111 on the list of topics to be discussed were available to the public, and that the action took place at a properly noticed and properly held public meeting.

Britt sided with Doyle.

Britt wrote that the Duneland School Board didn’t hold an improper public meeting, but that it acted on an agenda item by name alone when it approved changes to the transfer student policy in August, which Britt said is anathema to the purpose of holding public meetings.

Even at a properly noticed meeting, acting on an agenda item by number or item alone constitutes a void action under the Open Door Law, according to Britt.

Britt wrote that some fine print doesn’t need to be discussed in the public eye, but an issue as substantial as the district’s transfer student policy does. He also condemned the Board’s attempts to justify the action in retrospect, saying that such statements are a disservice to parents who are often urged to participate in their children’s education, then balked at when they engage with the Board.

Britt’s conclusion: “the Board of Trustees for the Duneland School Corporation took final action on Policy 5111 by reference to an agenda item alone, and is susceptible to a court order overturning the vote for violating Indiana Code section 5-14-1.5-4(a).”

The Office of the Public Access Counselor is an advisory government entity formed by the General Assembly in 1999 to train public officials on public access laws and citizens’ rights, respond to informal complaints regarding public access laws, and issue responses to those complaints. Opinions of the Public Access Counselor carry no standalone legal weight, but the decisions of a public board can be overturned by a judge if they are found to violate the Open Door Law.

Parkinson told the Tribune in a phone call that he disagrees with the Opinion on the grounds that the large packet of policy updates containing Policy 5111 was on the agendas for both the July and August 2018 meetings. The addenda to his March 14 response to the Public Access Counselor shows that the agenda item was titled “Policy updates Vol. 29. No. 1.”

Parkinson said, “If there was a violation, that was certainly remedied” by the special meeting the Board held on Feb. 28. Parkinson also said he expects the Board to take up Policy 5111 again at its first meeting in May.

Doyle told the Tribune he isn’t sure if he’ll take further action to have the vote overturned. He’s waiting to see how the Board responds to Britt’s findings.

Doyle said the public hasn’t gotten the facts on how many transfer students is too many, and he thinks the School Board should look into why students are opting to leave Duneland and consider the money that students transferring in bring with them.

“I’d like to see them be good neighbors and allow out-of-district students in, if they can,” Doyle said. “If there’s too many, and they’re losing the quality education at Duneland, absolutely shut it down.”

Doyle said he made the complaint to keep the Board honest. “It seems like when you ask them questions, you don’t get answers. I just want them to be more honest and transparent about what they’re doing.”

“They hold elected positions. They should be accountable for their duties,” Doyle said.



Posted 4/16/2019




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