In Our Opinion: Illegal or not, Coupeville school board actions troubling

As role models for students, school boards should strive to follow the letter as well as the spirit of the law.

This hasn’t been the case recently with the Coupeville School Board, which has been playing fast and loose with the Open Public Meetings Act.

Also, it’s unclear whether the district or board members are following the basics of the state’s Public Records Act.

The problems came to light after board member Sherry Phay disclosed during an executive session that she heard from about 20 teachers who alleged Superintendent Steve King created a hostile work environment through biased behavior and retaliation.

Instead of adjourning back to the public meeting — or setting a special meeting — to vote on the appropriate response, board President Kathleen Anderson and the human resources manager unilaterally made the decision outside of any meeting to hire an attorney to investigate, after Anderson apparently got an OK from King himself.

To his credit, he strongly supported the idea.

Under Washington state’s Open Public Meetings Act, all action taken by a governing board must be made in public. No actions and no decisions can be made behind closed doors.

Governing boards cannot cede their decision-making authority to a single member of the board in an attempt to get around the law.

The reasoning behind the law is clear. Government derives its powers from the consent of the governed, to paraphrase the state constitution, and the governed can’t consent if they don’t know what and why decisions are being made.

The outside attorney interviewed a half dozen staff people, as well as King, and was unable to conclude that King had engaged in prohibited discrimination or retaliation.

A press release was drafted that explained the investigation and the findings. It also stated that the majority of the board “also wishes to reiterate its disappointment with, and disavowal of, the manner in which this investigation and Superintendent King were characterized by Board Member Phay in her prior communication to District employees.”

Phay’s email to members of the teachers’ union may have been inartful in the way it was phrased, presenting accusations as facts instead of allegations. But it should have been acknowledged that Phay was standing up for teachers who have concerns.

A more serious issue is how the press release came to be. It was clearly from the school board and was distributed to school staff and district parents. Prior to that, it should have been discussed and approved in a public meeting, especially since it states that the “majority of the board” wishes to disavow Phay’s actions.

Anderson told the newspaper that she sent the press release to the majority of the board for approval. That apparently didn’t include Phay, who was excluded from this important decision. Three state open government experts said this was a violation of the Open Meetings Act.

Getting approval from a quorum of members one at a time constitutes a serial meeting, also called polling, and is a violation of law.

After being asked about the violation, King offered a different — but equally troubling — version of events, saying that the majority of the school board was not involved in making a decision about a press release distributed in their name.

There’s also a question about public records. The newspaper requested and received documents related to the accusations and allegations, but nothing came from school board members — although everyone agrees that they received drafts of the press release at the very least.

Board emails and text messages, even on their private email and phones, are public if they are related to school business.

Maybe it’s time for board members to return to class for Civics 101. Or perhaps it’s time for new, more engaged people to be elected to the board.