Elected School Trustees are frequently and regularly criticized for failing to share details and discussions when it comes to various topics, particularly employee matters. The perception is that Trustees use legal justification to avoid explaining or defending their decisions. However, the system is designed to protect and safeguard individual personnel information, not protect a Board of Trustees.
Idaho statutes prohibit the discussion of sensitive employee information outside of general points like term of employment, pay grade, salary history and bonuses. Unless the employee gives written permission for information to be shared, or shares it themselves, nothing more can be publicly presented. This leaves boards to present their decisions with little to no accompanying evidence. That doesn’t mean that boards act without evidence or facts.
While boards are limited in their scope of public disclosure, they can talk about the process for gathering, analyzing and synthesizing information and how issues come to a board. Trustees can discuss their primary goals in these matters: achieving the best interest of students and the educational institutions and hopefully reaching an agreeable resolution for both parties.
Employees who are dissatisfied with results can and do appeal to other legal channels. Elected boards are the final say for the school district, but depending on the issue, may not be the final say legally.
No final action or decision can be taken in executive sessions. For this reason, boards will enter into executive session and then come out after the discussion and make a public record if an action is required. Some suggest Boards wait until people leave to discuss and decide on these matters, when, in reality, they are following the statutory process. Boards would not and could not choose to make a decision in open session prior to having the discussion in executive session.
The law is clear on employee confidentiality and conversations a board may engage in. Boards adhere to these laws for a variety of reasons and fundamental to it is protection of the employee and to avoid violating the law themselves. Such procedures create an interesting dynamic as employees are free to discuss any part of what they believe the issues or problems may be while board members are bound to confidentially. A board’s position in these delicate situations is not an enviable one and can be frustrating to the public. It is for this reason that every effort is made to avoid decision making at the board level. Numerous school, administrative and district supervisors are typically utilized to help resolve matters before they reach the board. The board is seen as a last recourse, not a first stop.
Boards can also discuss the steps leading up to a decision and where and when they discussed a matter. These meetings take place in state approved executive sessions. Boards must call for and get approval from a majority of other board members before entering into an executive session. These sessions are limited in topic including; the hiring, evaluation or dismissal of an employee or acquiring interest in real property.
Cassia school trustees are interested in public comment and are in the process of investigating ways for patrons to express their concerns, support and suggestions without violating open meeting and agenda laws. Striking the right balance will take some effort and time. And community input may be one sided, at times, as board members may not be able to fully respond to specific questions or requests. Cassia Board members recognize their regular monthly meetings do not always provide adequate space for community interaction and are working to make adjustments to foster public involvement.
Understanding how Idaho laws impact this goal is an important first step to building a better community supported education for our kids.