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‘Concerned citizens’ respond to AG ruling, Danville school board statement

A group of “concerned citizens” that recently won a Kentucky attorney general’s ruling against the Danville Board of Education say the ruling “validates” their concerns about a lack of transparency and accountability from the school board.

The group of more than 100 people came to the board with concerns over how it was handling the process of renewing or not renewing former Superintendent Keith Look’s contract. They pursued open records requests with the Danville Schools for thousands of emails and used those emails as evidence in an open meetings complaint filed with the school board on June 25, and a subsequent appeal to the attorney general’s office on July 19.

The AG ruled on Aug. 9 that the Danville school board had violated the Open Meetings Act during a Jan. 22 meeting, when it discussed possible dismissal of Look in closed session without notifying the public it would be doing so.

The group has no set leader or spokesperson — something that they think the school board has had a tough time understanding, said Rhonda Caldwell, a member of the group.

“This has been going since February and with everything we’ve done, different people step up and take the lead on this or that, because we’ve made it clear it’s all of us working together, it’s not a single person,” Caldwell said.

The group aims to ensure “that Danville’s board members conduct the school district’s business in public and operate with the highest ethical standards in a transparent manner,” according to written answers to questions from The Advocate-Messenger, provided by the group through an email from Caldwell. “Our work is holding them accountable for their actions.”

The open meetings complaint and appeal were both signed by four of the group’s members — Dianna Devine, Lisa Grimes, Bill Grimes and Chuck Stallard.

While the AG ruling finds the school board violated the law, it doesn’t require the board to do anything about the violations. “… 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.”

In its open meetings complaint, the group asked that the board issue “public and written apologies to Dr. Look, staff who were publicly humiliated and the school community in general,” as well as “the resignation of the board chair, as well as the other two board members who acted illegally before voting to create the vacancy in the superintendent position.”

Asked if the group still wants those same actions carried out, the written response was, “While we understand some matters are outside the scope of the attorney general’s authority, the opinion simply validates our basis for demanding these actions. The common thread running through this months-long series of unacceptable actions by the board has been its unresponsiveness to, and disdain for the members of the community who are demanding open governance practices that reflect the will of the people.”

Asked for their opinion on the AG ruling in their favor but not requiring any action from the school board, the group stated:

“There are remedies we could demand, but they are pointless at this time. Reconvening the meeting to cure its legal defects would accomplish nothing. The entire purpose of our efforts has been to make the broader community aware of the board’s self-serving agenda, and secretive manner of conducting its business. We are focused on holding the board to a higher and lawful standard of practice in the future.”

The open meetings complaint focuses on proving board members discussed Look’s future during the Jan. 22 meeting, even though they entered executive session only for preliminary discussions about the superintendent’s evaluation.

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.

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.”

The AG’s ruling cites one email in particular as proof the board did not stick to discussions about the evaluation during the executive session: 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.”

Pennington issued a statement on behalf of the board after the ruling came out, stating that the board disagrees with the ruling and will be considering whether or not to appeal.

“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’s statement reads. “In addition, the attorney general’s opinion acknowledges that any discussion had by the school board in executive session was not improper in itself but simply needed to be announced under a different section of the Open Meetings Act.”

“Earlier this year, the school 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,” Pennington’s statement continues. “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 it is well past time for the school district to move forward.”

In responding to Pennington’s statement, the group wrote that it is “undeniable that the board discussed ending Dr. Look’s employment in executive session at its Jan. 22 meeting. The board’s (and Mr. Pennington’s) own statements establish it.”

“Trial lawyers have an inside joke: ‘When the law is against you, argue the facts; when the facts are against you, argue the law. When the law and the facts are both against you, confuse the jury,’” the group wrote. “This describes the concept of disguising a flaw in one’s argument by presenting large amounts of irrelevant information. Mr. Pennington’s statement has shown us how it’s done.”

The group wrote that they agree with Pennington’s sentiment that it is time to “move forward.”

“However, our version of moving forward is likely at odds with that of (Pennington) and the board,” they wrote. “To move forward, the entire culture of the board must change. We need a board that will conduct the public’s business in the open, in a manner consistent with law and with the will of its constituents. The days of secret discussions, personal agendas, third-party manipulation and self-serving power plays must become a thing of the past.

“We have grave doubts that the board, as currently constituted, has the will or the capacity to make these necessary changes.”