Violation. No violation.

Prosecutor offers opinion on RCAPS open meetings violations

REED CITY — Lake County Prosecutor Craig Cooper has answered the fundamental questions regarding alleged violations of the Open Meetings Act (OMA), which took place during the Reed City Area Public Schools Board of Education superintendent search early last year.

The complaint, made to the Michigan State Police by Hersey resident Debbie Todd, argues that the RCAPS board violated the OMA during the early stages of their superintendent search under the direction of Mecosta-Osceola Intermediate School District Superintendent Curtis Finch. The two alleged violations took place in closed session meetings held May 28 and June 4, with the board publicly announcing its top six candidates for superintendent after the June 4 meeting.

MOISD Superintendent Curt Finch

MOISD Superintendent Curt Finch

“Because I know other districts are going to be looking for a superintendent, that’s why I did this,” Todd said. “I don’t want this to happen again under Curt’s direction. This isn’t an isolated incident.”

Finch volunteered to facilitate the search, having done so in previous superintendent searches at Big Rapids Public Schools and Morley Stanwood Community Schools. RCAPS accepted the offer, since the Michigan Association of School Boards would have charged thousands of dollars to facilitate the search under the direction of an MASB representative.

The RCAPS board to engage in closed sessions to narrow the list of applicants and come up with interview questions, citing that the candidates requested confidentiality.

After a lengthy investigation and review of the board meetings, Cooper concluded that while the board did indeed violate the OMA during its superintendent search by going into closed sessions to narrow the field of potential candidates, neither its members nor Finch can be held criminally responsible since the mistakes were unintentional.

“The evidence available does not show any of the board members held the required intent to specifically violate the OMA,” said Cooper in his opinion letter. “To the contrary, the evidence shows that each school board member intended to comply with the OMA and took actions to comply with the OMA.”

The statement also said that Finch is not responsible legally.

“Mr. Finch is merely an advisor and does not have voting authority on behalf the Reed City School Board,” it stated. “Legally, Mr. Finch is not a member of the Reed City School Board and therefore, is not capable of violating the OMA himself in his role as an advisor. Even if Mr. Finch could be held responsible for the actions of the Reed City School Board, he cannot be found criminally responsible.”

Tim Webster

Tim Webster

Cooper’s response further stated uncertainty about whether or not the board violated the OMA in discussing interview questions in the closed sessions.

The RCAPS board has already taken steps to increase their awareness so a situation like this does not happen again, said RCAPS superintendent Tim Webster.

“The decision was fair,” he said. “We’ve been very proactive and have done some professional development since then. We’ve had the Michigan Association of School Boards assess our meetings and talk with us and help us out. We didn’t do anything intentionally — the closed sessions were honest mistakes.”

Todd emphasized that her compliant was not meant to target the RCAPS board, because they were merely doing what Finch directed them to do.

“The thing I don’t understand, the question I’m asking, is if Curt (Finch) is the one who gave them the advice, why hasn’t he taken ownership of his mistakes?” Todd said.

Finch said he agreed with most of the findings, and that his initial actions to enter into closed sessions were to protect the privacy of candidates. He also stated that he has been exploring other methods that do not violate the OMA but still provide for the confidentiality of the applicants in future searches, since many districts will be searching for new superintendents in the near future.

“The question is how to be confidential and open — how do you do both?” he said. “I’ve talked with other districts who use numbers or letters for people, we’ll just have to tweak our process to do something similar.”

“It’s about finding the balance,” he added. “It’s no big deal. We can fix it.”

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Posted by Elizabeth Badovinac

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