Stenehjem: Grand Forks School Board violated open meetings laws
North Dakota's Attorney General said Friday that the Grand Forks School Board violated the state's open meetings law at two June meetings. In a legal opinion, Wayne Stenehjem said the Superintendent's Evaluation Committee violated the law by disc...
North Dakota's Attorney General said Friday that the Grand Forks School Board violated the state's open meetings law at two June meetings.
In a legal opinion, Wayne Stenehjem said the Superintendent's Evaluation Committee violated the law by discussing more than what was on the agenda for its June 2 meeting.
The opinion also said the board improperly held an executive session during a June 14 regular board meeting when members discussed increasing Superintendent Larry Nybladh's salary.
Stenehjem was asked earlier this year to weigh in after receiving a request from Grand Forks resident William J. Couchigian.
Nybladh said the board was aware of the request and school district officials worked with Stenehjem's office to supply more facts about the meetings. Still, he said board members likely will be "surprised" by the opinion because they've "acted in good faith" to comply with the law.
"I know it's been the intent of the School Board to have a very transparent governance model," he said.
The only topic on the committee's June 2 agenda was an "End-of-the-year Recap."
But the committee also discussed the district's planning themes and wage increases for all employee groups.
Another topic of discussion was a review of Nybladh's contract. The committee agreed to several recommendations, including: providing Nybladh with performance pay based on his 2009-12 contract; eliminating the $4,000 performance clause for this school year and instead adding that to the superintendent's salary; and increasing the salary by 3 percent to 3.5 percent.
Nybladh said the board was following the same process it had used in the past when it released its agenda for the committee meeting. He said it's "kind of ironic" that the committee was found to have violated the law, especially considering the steps members have taken in recent years to make the process more open.
Still, he said it's "a very easy fix" to comply with the opinion.
"Essentially, it requires us just to use more verbiage in our notices," he said.
The June 14 meeting violation also involved Nybladh's contract. According to Stenehjem's opinion, the board went into executive session -- which is not open to the public or media -- and agreed to several contract changes, including deletion of the performance clause, clarification that the district would pay for the superintendent's annual physical and that the contract term would be changed to 2010-13.
After the executive session, board members unanimously approved those changes that resulted in Nybladh receiving a salary of $196,000 for this school year.
Stenehjem said the board believed it was authorized under state law to hold the executive session for negotiation strategy. But the law only authorizes these closed-door discussions "if disclosure of the remarks would have an adverse fiscal effect on the bargaining position" of the board.
The superintendent's contract gives the board discretion to increase the salary, but does not require annual negotiations of the amount. Stenehjem said that means it should have been discussed in an open meeting.
Nybladh said the normal practice is to refer any attorney general's opinion to the district's legal counsel, which would then issue recommendations to the board. But he pointed out the board members haven't yet seen the opinion and it will be up to them to decide if the topic should be discussed at a future meeting.
He emphasized that the board has "acted in good faith" in trying to comply with the open meetings law.
"They've tried to make their process for all committees and the board work to be more transparent," Nybladh said. "The intent certainly is to be open and the process that was used was intent upon doing that."
But he said political bodies across the state are in the same "difficult position" of keeping up with the open meetings law, especially while Stenehjem's office "is continually expanding the requirements for more definitive language and posting the notices."
"We're not always sure what we're supposed to be doing," he said.
Nybladh said he's hopeful Stenehjem's office will provide updated information about the law to avoid confusion in the future.
"But in the meantime, we understand the intent and will be supportive of that," he said. "And we would want to make the district in compliance immediately."
Johnson reports on local politics. Reach him at (701) 780-1105; (800) 477-6572, ext. 105; or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org .