Social gathering or no, there’s cause for concern

On Tuesday night, four of five voting members of the North Kitsap School District Board of Directors went out to socialize after the meeting. No big deal ... just some consenting adults blowing off some steam and building esprit de corps.

Well, except for one slight detail.

There were enough people of that particular governing board to discuss and develop a consensus on any of many issues confronting the school board.

All four members in attendance — Board President Melanie Mohler and directors Val Torrens, Ed Strickland and Tom Anderson — and Superintendent Rick Jones, who was also there, are adamant that the conversation steered very clear of school district business.

If that is the case, then no laws were broken and all is well.

But when a quorum of any governing body meets outside the public eye, there is always cause for concern.

It’s simple human nature: Whenever there gathers a group of people with one common interest, the conversation could steer to that interest.

While it is a gray area of the law, for a quorum of any voting body to meet without prior notice to the public does give the appearance of impropriety, said Bill Will, general manager of the Washington Newspaper Press Association.

“If it’s a quorum of any voting body, they have to be really careful not to talk about school board business. Even though it’s a social gathering, it can be interpreted as illegal,” he said.

Is it a volunteer board? You betcha.

Do those board members work at all hours of the day and night, studying facts and figures so they can make informed decisions on all matters education? Yes. Of course they do.

Do their guts ache when they have to balance the needs of the district against the budget and make funding cuts that negatively affect even a handful of children in the district? Yepper doo.

The issue is not that they were hanging out in a popular pub in town. That particular pub that holds a fond place in all our hearts. The issue is not what was in the glasses in front of them. They are consenting adults and the choice to partake or not is theirs and theirs alone.

The issue is that there were four of five voting members of the North Kitsap School District Board of Directors in one place at one time. That is a quorum, which technically constitutes a public meeting.

Yes, there is a social clause in the state’s Open Public Meeting law that allows for elected folks to gather and chat, as long as no “official business” is conducted. In this case, “official business” is a broad term, and could mean anything that may come before the school board and be voted on in an official capacity.

If one of them talks about how well their child performed in science class, is that a violation of the law? Science is, after all, a topic of frequent discussion via the Washington Assessment of Student Learning.

We’re talking about perception here.

While it is very likely the board members didn’t utter one word that had to do with the district, it’s still not a good idea for a quorum of the members to hang out together.

When board members are elected, they undergo training through the Washington State School Directors’ Association. Part of that training is ins and outs of open meetings.

The point being, they know the rules.

Yes, they should be able to hang out together socially, just not in groups of three or more. That’s all we’re saying. That promotes the perception that there might be some back-door dealings.

And perception is everything.

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