Since when is it legal for a school board president to unilaterally modify district contracts and spend district money?
That's one question growing out of recent actions by Carson City School District President James LeMaire.
In February, the Carson City School Board voted to replace retiring Superintendent Mary Pierczynski by promoting Richard Stokes, district human resources director. The effective hiring date for the new superintendent, the board stipulated, would be September 1, 2008.
However, with no public authorization by the school board, and no notice to the public regarding the change, as required under Nevada's open-meeting laws, LeMaire and the district's legal counsel subsequently met with Stokes and negotiated a new hire date for his contract.
Under this agreement, Stokes started his superintendency on July 1 – two months prior to the date approved by the school board in its public meeting, and without any official action by the board to amend its earlier vote.
On April 8 the Board finalized Mr. Stokes' promotion and unanimously voted to approve his contract – which caused Carson to employ two Superintendents at a cost approximating $20,000. However, one board member, Trustee Joe Enge, has raised claims that the new hire date was not made known to the public. Meeting records appear to substantiate this claim.
Nevada's Open Meeting Laws (OML) mandate that a school board must take all action in the open, posting an agenda with a clear and complete statement of the topics to be considered and making available to the public all supporting materials. Any action taken in violation of the OML is deemed void – not legal and therefore lacking the force of law.
All the official records made available to the public – agendas, back-up materials and minutes – specify a hire date of September 1. Nowhere does the record notify board members or the public that a change in the effective hire date was ever contemplated. In fact, during the April 8 public meeting, LeMaire, who reviewed the key components of the contract, even failed to mention the new July 1 hire date. However, e-mail records independently received by the Nevada Policy Research Institute show that trustees had in fact, before that April 8 meeting, received via e-mail a draft contract containing the new hire date. It was just the public who was left out.
The important issue here is one with which the Carson school board has had difficulties before. Ultimately the question is not whether LeMaire acted unilaterally in violation of the law. Rather, it is whether or not he and the Carson City school board will deign to obey Nevada's open-meeting and open-records laws. The purpose of those laws, after all, is to ensure that public bodies take their deliberations and action in the open. The laws were passed to protect democratic principals by ensuring that all public books and records will be open for the public's inspection.
In pursuit of this issue, the Nevada Policy Research Institute asked to inspect Carson City School District trustees' e-mails, which under Nevada law are deemed public records. Remarkably, the district responded by again ignoring Chapter 239 of the Nevada Revised Statutes, which requires governmental entities to give advance notice of fees before charging those fees.
Instead, with no warning, district staff bulk-mailed NPRI in Las Vegas 838 pages of documents, most of them duplicative, with a bill for copies of $209.50 and for shipping of $14.80. Not only did the district fail to post their fees as required by statute, but the district also ignored the Institute's money- and time-saving suggestion that the e-mail records simply be sent by e-mail or CD-ROM. All of the e-mails could have been collected in one or two common WinZip files and e-mailed.
Remarkably, of the 838 pages sent by the district, 680 pages were duplicates – in some cases, 15 different copies of the same page – resulting in $170.00 of unnecessary copy fees. Even then, many of the board members' key e-mail communications – some already provided to NPRI by other sources – were not included in the district's response to the open-records request.
In one such email, LeMaire justifies Stokes' revised start date, saying he "wouldn't have it any other way," and "If I could arrange for some sort of overlap in staffing during a similar transition in the future, I would do it again."
Similarly, all the current evidence from the Carson City School Board suggests its attitude to the state's open-meeting law remains unchanged.
When it comes to thumbing its collective nose at the law, the board appears quite ready to do it all again.
Karen Gray is an education researcher at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.