AG: Danville school board violated open meetings

Published 6:50 am Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The Danville Board of Education violated the Open Meetings Act when it discussed Superintendent Keith Look’s future behind closed doors, Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear has ruled.

The ruling is a win for a group of citizens who have argued that three board members conspired outside of proper open-meetings channels to part ways with Look. But Beshear didn’t order the board to do anything about the open-meetings violations he found.

“… we make no finding as to whether the (Danville Board of Education) or its agents acted in bad faith or (misled) the appellants,” the ruling states. “Our review is strictly limited to whether the agency violated the provisions of the Open Meetings Act.”

Email newsletter signup

The AG ruling, issued Aug. 9, finds the school board violated the law on Jan. 22, “when it failed to give notice in regular open meeting that it would engage in a discussion which might lead to the dismissal of a superintendent, and failed to cite the statutory exception authorizing the closed session discussion. The board violated (open-meetings law) when it discussed the issue in closed session without first publicly announcing the issue prior to convening the closed session.”

The Jan. 22 meeting featured numerous members of the public who came to Look’s defense because they said they had heard the board was considering not renewing Look’s contract.

“I implore you to look at all of the people here tonight to support Dr. Look,” said Jaymie Ross, a second-grade teacher, during the January meeting. “While we are a small town and we know that rumors do spread like wildfire, we as a community must implement our great state’s motto, which started right here in Danville, ‘Together we stand, Divided we fall.’”

The board did not address the many concerns raised during the meeting. After the meeting, board Chair Paige Matthews said she believed there was a misunderstanding because the agenda included an executive session to discuss Look’s upcoming evaluation.

“There hasn’t been, as of yet, but I feel like there will be discussions (of Look’s contract),” Matthews said at the time. “Tonight was just us wanting to figure out how we want to handle the evaluation.”

A group of Danville residents didn’t believe that narrative and requested emails through the Open Records Act from the school board. They included some of those emails — and additional ones they acquired through other channels — in the open meetings appeal they filed with the attorney general on July 19. They argue the emails show the board was indeed considering not renewing Look’s contract at the Jan. 22 meeting.

The open-meetings appeal is signed by Dianna Devine, Lisa Grimes, Bill Grimes and Chuck Stallard.

The AG’s ruling cites one email in particular as proof the board violated the law: a Jan. 5 email from school board attorney Vince Pennington to the board members that reads in part, “I’ve recommended to Paige that we add an executive session item to the 1/22/18 regular school board meeting for preliminary discussions regarding (Look’s) 2017-2018 evaluation. I envision that the discussion might naturally include discussion about whether Keith’s contract will be renewed or not.

“My thinking is that the executive session will begin with the entire board and Keith meeting together to consider the process for his (evaluation) … After that, we’ll ask Keith to leave so that the board members can have a frank discussion about his performance and whether they want to renew his contract or not. If there is a clear majority that wants to renew, or a clear majority that does not want to renew, then we can proceed accordingly.”

The AG ruling finds the board did enter executive session to discuss the evaluation, but it should have also cited a public-meeting exception and explained it was going to hold discussions that could lead to dismissal of the superintendent.

Pennington issued a written statement on the ruling Monday afternoon, disagreeing with the ruling and suggesting the school board might file a lawsuit in circuit court appealing the ruling.

“While the school district respects the attorney general’s opinion in this matter, we strongly disagree with both its analysis and conclusion,” the statement reads. “Under Kentucky law, the dismissal of school district employees (including superintendents) and the non-renewal of a superintendent’s contract at the end of its natural term are two entirely different issues with different governing statutes. The attorney general’s opinion fails to distinguish between the two matters and, in fact, treats them as one and the same.

“The attorney general’s opinion is based on the notion that the school board had executive session discussion about dismissing Dr. Look at its 1/22/18 meeting, which is simply not accurate, legally or factually.”

Pennington writes that instead, the board “made a difficult decision not to renew Dr. Look’s contract.”

“That decision has resulted in five open records requests, involving the production of nearly 8,000 documents and two open meetings complaints,” the statement reads. “We will certainly review the attorney general’s opinion, including appeal options, with the school board. We believe that the school district has more than solid grounds for appeal. At the start of this new school year, however, consideration should also be given to the fact this is well past time for the school district to move forward.”

School board members Paige Matthews, Steve Becker and Susan Matherly declined to comment on the ruling Monday evening and referred a reporter back to Pennington’s statement.

After deciding by a 3-2 vote not to renew Look’s contract on Feb. 19, the board proceeded with hiring a new superintendent. Dr. Tammy Shelton was chosen from 25 people who applied for the position and the board voted unanimously to hire her. She began in the position July 1.

Board attorney Pennington and Lisa Grimes, with the group that filed the AG appeal, were asked to respond to additional questions about the AG ruling. Neither had responded as of 5 p.m. Monday.