How many times must the community be betrayed by its school board before an appropriate response is meted out?
The governing body which resides over the largest public budget in the Northwestern part of the state continues to thumb its nose at taxpayers. A recent (probable) violation of the open meetings act, adds to a list of actions that are not only indicative of sloppy governance, but more likely sanctioned acts of deception and perfidy. A scheduling ruse used by the board to hide its 'open' retreat worked to its advantage with no public present, with no recordings made of the retreat activities, and no option of challenge by the public, plans that will likely be rubber stamped in future open meetings which the board normally schedules.
Examples of deceptive practices are not exactly limited to what I write here. This particular story however, notes a growing disdain for the concerns taxpayers might have for the appropriate management of their resources. There are concerns that remain unanswered.
A recent bond issue was a catalyst in engaging some of us in the Grand Traverse region with regard to the actions of the local board for Traverse City Area Public Schools. (TCAPS) The $100 million bond issue came on the 5 year anniversary of another like it in 2007. Part of the issue that inspired opposition of myself and others was the inclusion of a $26.5 million 'performing arts center' in the bond which many see as wasteful and unnecessary. The timing also coincides with one of the worst economically difficult times the region has seen.
The bond was defeated by nearly 60-40%, which might make some think it would have failed no matter the opposition.
The sad reality is that it would have likely been a reversal in percentages seen without organized resistance and the sunlight provided by that resistance.
more below the fold
The bond would have passed easily. The board and administration of TCAPS had developed several different means of providing support for the bond proposal.
Through a pay for play scheme (chronicled here) support was grown for an advertising blitz that extended outside of the governing body's direct control. It utilized the local chamber in its application, and made promises of jobs and an inviting environment for new economic growth. The chamber did its part alongside board members in explaining it would ONLY cost an average home owner $80 a year more. At the same time the chamber ignored its membership (businesses) which would have picked up the other half of the bill.
TCAPS itself published (at a cost of $20,000) a mailer asking for direct support for the millage, which likely violated campaign finance laws in our state. Of course I filed a complaint, and we await the results. In the meantime, a public relations director has been made to take the fall, and resigned from her $84,000 job a few days ago.
The local chamber president made appeals to the taxpayers that the roofs on the buildings were failing, and that buckets in the hallways were not acceptable. This was of course patently false, and in fact any leaks that were experienced were planned inconveniences as repairs were not made purposefully to elicit sympathies from parents with children in those schools.
The school children were brainwashed into believing they had substandard auditorium facilities at the Central High School, and conditions a little paint or a new curtain could not resolve. That particular facility though 58 years old, is far from being in as poor a condition as offered. It is acoustically excellent, and has an appropriate level of space and comfort for a school auditorium. In fact, prior to going to a performance of fiddler on the roof November 18, I had almost started to believe it might be in some form of disrepair. If it was as bad as the public has been told, my own home as well as most others in the community should be condemned.
Buildings that once would have been considered 'young' by institutional standards were called antiques and slated for replacement. Brand new technologically superior schools were far more morally correct for our children than modest upgrades and appropriate maintenance.
The board repeatedly appeared on radio and television and in public meetings selling its bond proposal. Consistently telling the truth behind the veil of nescience. The public had no idea that percentages offered for projects were skewed by an already existing bond remaining at $65 million. The ignorance of all details was frequently used to provide cover behind the truths told, and the deal seemed better than it truly was.
Yes. It would have passed easily, but for the effort to provide truth to the public, which responded appropriately when it saw that truth.
The board, and Superintendent Stephen Cousins likely did not want that truth to be known.
The board for its retreat, made plans to discuss why it lost, and how to proceed going forward, and this where we are at today.
Yesterday, there was a meeting that was held that I suggest is in violation of the OMA. I have posted upon it here. The video is somewhat self explanatory, with my request to the board that they adjourn the meeting until the meeting date that was scheduled on their website (the 14th of December) until 5 minutes after I and my associate had left. They did not adjourn and continued on despite the advice offered and the information about the improper meeting posting on the website.
THAT is where they are likely in trouble.
If not legally, (We will probably file a lawsuit) it will be the public relations aspect that will linger over a board that has been less than forthcoming on many of its operative schemes. The posting I reference above received some feedback from Kelly Hall, the TCAPS schools board president. She is the one in the video (in the posting) who suggested she would call the sheriff. (a side note: school board meetings with opposing ideas present, sometimes sees the board requesting police presence) Instead of an apologetic attitude, she places the failing of the scheduling in the perception of the TCAPS.NET site visitor, not with the actual content of that site. Her comment:
"December 8, 2012 - 10:33 pm Kelly Hall
Mr. Gillman, notice of today's retreat date & location was posted in its normal location (the Boardman admin. building) on October 26, 2012. The retreat agenda was posted on the district web site on December 4, 2012 and remained there. The agenda clearly stated the date, location & time of the meeting. Further, the Board discussed the date, time & location of the retreat at our November 26, 2012 televised study session. The meeting was legal. My interview with the Ticker occurred on Friday, November 30, 2012, so the reference to "next week" was appropriate, but I can't control how the reporter writes her story or when it is published. Check your facts next time before disrupting a legal meeting.
I should note that the video (see images below) of their November 26th session, and the minutes remain unavailable even today.
And a casual mention in a meeting (on the 26th)is NOT a posting nor could it be used as such, so is irrelevant. My reply to her:
December 9, 2012 - 4:30 pm admin
The agenda that you say was posted on the 4th is/was not available directly from any calendar page.
Because the retreat was not likely going to be recorded, we were preparing to record for the purposes of making it a publicly available video. Our plans relied on the scheduling information provided on the website. Surely, if there were any meetings held by the board there would be at the very least, coinciding postings on the site which most folks would expect to have accurate information. Imagine our surprise on the morning of the 8th to find out the meeting was already in progress.
If in fact the posting at the administration building was the ONLY posting, and if in fact the agenda was available as of the 4th, by itself our argument might be a moot point.
We knew there was a retreat coming up. We were aware it would not likely be broadcast. We would have followed through with a call, email, or a visit to the admin building where the postings are usually located.
However, the calendar indicated the 14th at 8AM, and there was NO mention of the 8th session on said calendar, and our plans were made upon THAT information provided by TCAPS, and we would not expect to have to re-verify by extensive scouring of the entire TCAPS site.
We took the TCAPS information provided on its face.
We trusted the board, and administration, and the board betrayed that trust.
When you were made aware of the error, you did NOT stop the meeting and reconvene on the 14th as posted on the calendar. Rather than accept there was a mistake and live with the consequence, there was an immediate attempt to hide the mistake. There was a reactive attempt to bury any culpability, and preserve plausible deniability of the boards ownership of that mistake. 5 minutes was all it took for the board to decide after we left the `disrupted meeting' to have that evidence purged from the site.
Would there have been such attentiveness to its posting in the first place.
I suppose we could all ignore the mistakes and simply assume that they are simply that.
However, it seems that a long string of abuses should be called out for what they are. The power we give our representatives, especially in those positions unpaid and undesired by most, should perhaps require an evermore watchful eye. A school board with 8 and 9 figure resources cannot be allowed to simply roll over the rules that bind them to the public's best interests. The rules alone provide a framework, and procedural platform to guarantee those interests. But when those procedural norms are repeatedly conflicted through improper action or presentation by that board, it calls into question the most valuable asset we offer them.