Judge rules against Summit school board in open records lawsuit
In a lawsuit filed by an Archuleta County attorney, a judge determined the Summit School District Board of Education violated the state’s open records act during a meeting on May 1.
The purpose meeting, which was the second virtual meeting ever held by the board, was to discuss the district’s candidates for superintendent. Although the board is required to hold its meetings open to the public, it decided to enter an executive, or closed, session to protect the privacy of those who were applying for the position.
Matt Roane, a lawyer who has dedicated his career to open records laws, attended the May 1 meeting after hearing of the district’s superintendent search. At the meeting, he noticed that the board went into executive session without first performing a roll call vote, which is required by the law.
Roane then filed a lawsuit against the board claiming that the board violated the open records act by not performing an official vote when entering the meeting. Roane also claimed that the board violated the executive session law by making a decision on superintendent finalists during the meeting.
“Frankly, they are just rife for problems with these executive sessions,” Roane said. “The issues that I saw in Summit are issues that I see in a lot of different school districts. The purpose in a lot of these suits is to try to correct that across the state.”
The judge ultimately ruled that the board violated the act when it did not vote before entering the executive session.
“We had a motion by a board member, we had a second by another member and we then shifted into another Zoom call to go into our private executive session,” Board President Kate Hudnut said at a meeting on Dec. 17. “What we did not do, unfortunately, before that is what’s called a roll call … we missed it. We’re human. It was, I will say, extraordinary times.”
Because of that decision, the judge did not rule on the second part of the lawsuit about whether or not the board violated the act by making a decision about candidates in the executive session.
“One of the broad rules about executive sessions is that you can’t make any formal actions or take any positions or pass any policies behind closed doors,” Roane said. “I think, what seems to be very obvious, they selected their finalists for the superintendent position in that executive session.”
Hudnut defended the district’s decision to use an executive session at the meeting. The records law protects the materials filed by or on behalf of the candidates.
“It’s a great disappointment for our board to be put under this microscope,” she said. “We of course will do better and have done better.”
Roane said his goal behind filing lawsuits against public entities like school boards is to educate others about open records law and violations from happening in the future. He said he gave the district two weeks to release the recording of the executive session before filing the lawsuit, which it decided not to do.
The board and many other entities that have been involved in lawsuits against Roane feel that the lawyer is wasting public funds.
“This is really unfortunate that someone has taken advantage of already-underfunded school districts,” board member Chris Alleman said at the meeting.
Roane said he gets that kind of response a lot, with people accusing him of wanting to earn money off of public entities.
“All that I and my clients do is try to make sure that they comply with the law,” he said. “So I’m not going to apologize for holding someone’s feet to the fire … The reflection ought to be back towards yourself as a school board not at another person who pointed out that you broke the law.”
Roane added that he doesn’t believe the board was trying to violate the law. However, he hopes that this experience will help hold the board and other entities like it accountable.
“I want them to know that people are watching,” he said. “I think that will help them remind themselves that we need to be very careful about these rules and they’ll do as good a job as they can to comply.”
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
As a Summit Daily News reader, you make our work possible.
Now more than ever, your financial support is critical to help us keep our communities informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having on our residents and businesses. Every contribution, no matter the size, will make a difference.
Your donation will be used exclusively to support quality, local journalism.
Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.
User Legend: Moderator Trusted User