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Ronan school board taught about scope of power

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RONAN — The power of Montana school board trustees is weak individually, but strong when board members work together effectively. 

Debra Silk, associate executive director and general counsel for the Montana Association of School Boards, explained the limitations and expectations of school trustees to Ronan district board members in a Jan. 13 presentation. 

“You have all the power and authority under Montana law to act as a trustee when you are sitting in a regular or special board meeting,” Silk said. 

The only other time under Montana law that trustees have the authority to act in their capacity as a trustee is when the board delegates some function to them, according to Silk. 

“Outside of that perspective this is where all of your authority lies,” she explained. “Sometimes that’s hard for newly elected board members to understand because you are an elected official … but under Montana law you are to work collectively.” 

This means individual board members should not promise to fix problems within the district, although they are usually barraged by people who want answers and explanations. 

“I think there’s something to be said for educating the public about what your authority is and what it is not,” Silk said. “For example, if you have a parent that comes to you with concerns, you should not ever give any member of the public, or the staff, or anyone else, the impression that you as an individual board member can do anything about their issue or problem, but I think you can educate them about how things are handled. Most concerns are handled at the administrative level.” 

In the December and November board meetings, the Ronan board was harshly criticized by parents and community members for not interacting with the public when people aired angry comments about bullying concerns and the potential elimination of the high school cheerleading program. 

“We’ve had some people get angry, because during that public comment section we don’t have a back-and-forth,” Board Chairman Mark Clary said. “We’re taking their comments, but they want more out of us when we are trying to gather information.” 

Silk said that although the public might not like the public comment process, the Ronan board is acting appropriately when it doesn’t interact during public comment. 

“It’s not intended to be a back-and-forth dialogue, interrogation, full discussion of an issue,” Silk said. “If you start going down that road then you start violating the open meetings laws because it’s not on the agenda.” 

That does not mean that the board can’t opt for a more aggressive response than “thank you for your comments,” Silk said. She gave an example of a district where a person stood during the public comment period and asked for access to public information. The board chairman responded by directing the person to the custodian of public records. 

“You have to exercise a little bit of common sense with those,” Silk said. 

Exercising reasonable judgment about how far a discussion can go before it violates the opens meeting is sometimes necessary to see if a topic warrants placement on a future agenda, board member Tom Anderson said. 

“Without some dialogue, how would we know it warrants placement on the agenda at a future meeting?” Anderson said. “Obviously we have to have some dialogue.”

Ultimately, the board chair has to use judgment and shut the meeting down if public comment travels into the murky waters of open meetings violations, Silk said. 

“I’ve cut people off in the audience before because they were going places I didn’t want to go,” Clary said. “They were getting off topic.” 

Silk said that from her perspective, the Ronan board appears to be operating effectively. 

“I think you want to make sure you are creating a culture where if there are discussion or comments, you are allowing the opportunity for any member of the board to make a comment and on action items allow any member of the public to participate also,” Silk said. 

In other business: 

• Zana Lytle was hired as head baker. 

• Noelle Decker was hired as 2014-2015 cross-country coach. 

• FFA overnight field trips to Cascade, Great Falls, Conrad, and Lewistown were approved. 

• Superintendent Andy Holmlund’s performance evaluation was completed. 

• The board approved budget amendment to request $28,755.15 for the elementary general fund and $71,363.75 for the high school general fund. 

The next board meeting will be Feb. 10 at 7 p.m. in the Ronan High School Library. 

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