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Trustees silent observers as staff, citizens work on school closure strategy

2014-04-18T06:00:00Z 2014-05-01T00:17:43Z Trustees silent observers as staff, citizens work on school closure strategyBy DEREK BROUWER Independent Record Helena Independent Record
April 18, 2014 6:00 am  • 

As parents, educators and community members put their heads together in search of a solution to Helena’s aging schools, members of the board of trustees have watched from the sidelines.

Trustees will have the final say on a bond proposal that’s poised to carry a record-breaking price tag. But on Wednesday they sat in the bleachers of a gymnasium at C.R. Anderson, serving as close observers — and cheerleaders — of the process the district has entrusted to a group of staff and citizens.

“I’ve been so impressed with the passion and dedication of the 35 people who got plucked out of all these different schools and parts of the community to focus on our students,” trustee Betsy Baur said.

Several school board members — at times enough for a quorum — have attended each of the five work group meetings held so far.

A few of them, including Baur and chair Libby Goldes, also attended an earlier round of meetings by a separate committee.

“I wanted to see the process unfolding,” Goldes said.

Others have observed at the invitation of work group facilitator Cindy Lewis, who says their attendance will help them understand how the bond recommendation is created.

“There shouldn’t be any huge surprises because they’ll know what the recommendations are and where they come from,” Lewis said.

Knowledge of the process will make for a better handoff of ideas from the committee to board members, Lewis hopes.

That transition wasn’t smooth last fall, she said, when the school board balked at the proposal put to them by a steering committee. Trustees voted in February to delay a bond measure and initiate the current process, which will identify school closures officials say are necessary to relieve overcrowding in certain buildings and streamline educational offerings.

Trustee Cherche Prezeau felt disconnected the first time around, she said.

“With the majority of the board present at these meetings I think it will be an easier transition into decision-making,” Prezeau said.

The handoff will be further eased by an official joint meeting between work group members and trustees after the group’s last meeting on April 30. The joint meeting will take a full day, according to Lewis.

Until then, the trustees are present at the ongoing meetings as community members, officially at least. They aren’t members of the committee, and meeting notices don’t advise that a quorum of trustees will be at work.

“I just wanted (trustees) to watch and see what happens, but I didn’t want them to participate,” Lewis said.

At the meetings, some trustees take close notes or chat with district staff during breaks. As committee members brainstorm school closures in small groups, trustees and other observers have been permitted to hover and listen, but not contribute.

During a public comment period at the end of each meeting, one or two trustees have thanked the group for its work. Prezeau once offered her opinion on the process of adjusting school boundaries, clarifying that she presented it “as a community member.”

Trustees’ dual role as board and community members was the subject of a recent Montana Supreme Court opinion. The decision in a lawsuit filed by the Boulder Monitor against the Jefferson High school board said that a quorum of trustees may observe official meetings as members of the public without violating open meetings laws.

“In fact, it can be argued that the better public policy would be to encourage members of public bodies to observe such events so they can be better educated and informed about matters that they will later vote on in their official capacities,” reads the majority opinion in the 5-1 decision.

Trustees are only trustees during school board meetings, Helena Superintendent Kent Kultgen said. “But they are parents and community members outside of that.

“I believe that by observing this they will be more prepared and knowledgeable about the process so they can make a decision,” he said.

“Our main goal during this process is to be transparent,” Prezeau said. “We’re seeing this unfold the same way the community would see this unfold.

“In the end, our deliberations and decisions will be our own,” she added.

Copyright 2014 Helena Independent Record. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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