Groveport Madison Board of Education members are at odds with each other over allegations of violations of the state’s open meeting "Sunshine Law."
At the board’s Aug. 13 meeting, Board President Dr. Naomi Sealey made a motion, approved unanimously by the board, to request the school district’s law firm Bricker & Eckler to conduct a written analysis with respect to the Sunshine Law regarding the board’s lengthy closed executive sessions this summer – many of which apparently involved discussions regarding an undisclosed dispute between the school district and the company Groveport Madison is contracted with to handle its bus transportation.
Sealey said she consulted her personal attorney, Chester, Willcox, and Saxbe, before crafting the motion.
The debate at the board meeting
The unanimous vote on the motion was the only part the board members agree on.
"I’m concerned whether the board is complying with the Sunshine Law because of our numerous closed sessions this summer," said Sealey at the board meeting. "I want to make sure we’re doing everything legally."
Board member John Kershner challenged Sealey.
"Our attorney has been present in the closed sessions," said Kershner. "Part of our board policy is that we won’t announce future actions or present confidential documents to the media…Now you (Sealey) choose to try and embarrass the district and try to make the board look inappropriate (with this motion)."
Days after the meeting board member Duane Dailey said he was "shocked by (Sealey’s) motion."
Board member Nathan Slonaker stated, "It’s a top priority to make sure we’re in full compliance with the law. Our attorneys were present at the meetings and they would have told us if we were in violation."
Kershner alleged that it is Sealey who has violated the Sunshine Law by polling board members before meetings to ascertain what should be on the board’s meeting agenda and by offering up confidential legal letters to the media.
"It’s bizarre that the board president would make a motion like this," said Kershner. "The president is authorized to contact the board’s attorneys at any time and has been in contact with them weekly over several months. If there had been violations (of the Sunshine Law) by the board she would have already heard from our attorney."
Sealey countered that she does not ask board members how they plan to vote on issues prior to meetings.
"I’m allowed to call board members and tell them what’s coming before the board. I’m not asking about their vote. I’m asking their opinions," said Sealey.
Sealey stated that at a closed session Aug. 7, the majority of board members asked Superintendent Scott McKenzie, Treasurer Anthony Swartz, and attorney Jim Burnes, to leave the session. Sealey believes that action was in violation of the Sunshine Law because she said the board went into closed session to talk to the attorney. However, her fellow board members feel, under the law, they were well within their rights to ask the administrators and attorney to leave.
"I don’t want litigation (with the bus company)," said Sealey. "I want to do what’s right for the kids, the district, and the transportation people."
Sealey alleged Kershner, Dailey, and Slonaker "bullied" her in the Aug. 7 closed session to try to convince her to vote with them on hiring a second set of attorneys to handle the transportation dispute. (Board member Mary Tedrow was not at the Aug. 7 meeting.)
"I wouldn’t describe it as bullying. I just call it a majority vote," said Dailey. "She’s (Sealey) outnumbered and is not happy we haven’t gotten her permission."
Added Slonaker, "It’s simply untrue and irresponsible to say she was bullied."
"They wanted us to look united," said Sealey. "We are a divided board. I don’t agree with what they’re (other board members) doing. It’s good to be divided sometimes, it shows that other opinions exist."
Kershner disagreed with Sealey’s description of the Aug. 7 closed meeting.
"We were kind to her in the closed session. We simply asked that if she didn’t agree that we find a satisfactory way to disagree," said Kershner.
Kershner further alleged that Sealey ignored her fellow board members in the Aug. 7 meeting by "chatting on her computer," an allegation Sealey refutes.
"I was listening to what was going on. I’m very good at multi-tasking. I didn’t want to have a meeting that day because I had course chat sessions with my college students (whom she teaches) scheduled for that night, but they still insisted on having a meeting," said Sealey, who said she couldn’t cancel the online sessions with her students. "It’s my livelihood."
Kershner also cited the Aug. 7 meeting where, once the board came out of closed session, Sealey offered a motion to accept the bus transportation company’s settlement offer, expressed in an Aug. 4 letter to the district, and to include the district’s response to the letter.
"She never mentioned she was going to make that motion and this was after we all had agreed not to blindside each other," said Kershner. "I would further ask how she justifies making a motion based on confidential mediation information."
Slonaker added that Sealey’s motion to accept the Aug. 4 letter from the bus company "put the board in an awkward position and breached attorney/client privilege."
Sealey said, she likewise, did not appreciate the typed motions the majority of the board had ready and then approved at the Aug. 7 meeting to hire the second set of attorneys to specifically handle transportation issues and communications.
"Don’t attack me. I have a right to make a motion," said Sealey. "I’m trying to keep the district out of trouble and save the taxpayers money."
Board member Mary Tedrow commented, "The board’s decision to have its lawyers analyze the board’s actions related to its executive sessions and the Ohio Sunshine Law will help the board determine if it is abiding by the Ohio Sunshine Law, and, if not, what the board should be doing differently."
Tedrow said she has many questions including: When, if ever, is it legal to reveal something that has occurred in executive session? For how many months and how many meetings should an item that will have a great impact on the school district be discussed only in executive session? How long should an executive session last? What can a minority of the board do to terminate an executive session when it seems that a decision has been made and nothing can be gained by extending the session?
Dailey said the whole matter is "unfortunate."
"We just have a difference of opinion and this is how it’s fallen out," said Dailey. "We are all aware of abiding by the board policies, laws, and meeting procedures. I like the people on the board and know everyone has a similar interest in helping the district."