Complainant agrees that school boards need more training
The Gibraltar Area School Board did not violate the Open Meetings Act or break Robert’s Rules of Order during discussions and board-member conversations prior to votes in December to lift mandatory mask-wearing rules.
That was the finding of the district’s attorney, Mary Gerbig, who investigated a multifaceted complaint made by a school board member who resigned in late December.
Former school board member Angela Sherman said she listened to Gerbig’s findings this spring and decided not to further pursue legal action against the board. However, she said, some communications in December by board president Stephen Seyfer came “right up to the line of legal” without stepping over it.
One of Sherman’s initial complaints to the district office, and later to Gerbig, asserted that board members had a “walking quorum” when Seyfer sent emails to board members to gauge its consensus on mask-wearing rules for students ages 4-11.
A walking quorum is a series of gatherings or communications among separate groups of members of a governmental body, each less than quorum size, who agree, tacitly or explicitly, to act uniformly in sufficient number to reach a quorum – the minimum number of a governmental body’s membership necessary to act.
Sherman said the attorney told her there could not have been a “walking quorum unless everybody hit Reply All” to the email. Instead, board members replied directly to Seyfer.
“Legally, the behavior was permissible,” Sherman said. “Personally, I find it wholeheartedly unethical. It walked right up to the line of legal and didn’t cross it.”
Gerbig delivered her official finding to the board in May during a public meeting, also conveying an informal opinion from the Wisconsin attorney general, who found it “very unlikely that a court would find a walking quorum,” Gerbig said.
Sherman said her resignation this winter did not stem from disagreeing with board-member decisions or the board president, though she still maintains the board was provided with an inaccurate and misleading timeline when it took a vote in mid-December to set an early-January date for lifting some of the district’s mask-wearing protocols.
In addition to the walking quorum, Sherman raised concerns over “the use of a motion and vote at the Dec. 13 board meeting to determine a date for optional masking; alleged misinformation used for a basis for the Dec. 13, 2021, vote; and the use of a motion to reconsider under Robert’s Rules of Order at a special meeting on Dec. 16, 2021,” Gerbig said.
Sherman made a verbal complaint to Superintendent Tina Van Meer on Dec. 14, 2021, and Van Meer conveyed those concerns to Gerbig. Sherman then provided a written statement of concern on Dec. 29, 2021, along with supporting documentation.
Gerbig’s investigation included interviews with board members, a review of various email communications between various board members, a review of the open-meetings law, a review of board agendas and videotapes of December 2021 board meetings, and a review of public-record response documents and submissions from both board members and Sherman.
Attorney Recommends Better Training
Although Gerbig said the board took proper steps to vote on issues in public, and took precautionary steps to try to reconsider its motion in a duly noticed special meeting and provide additional information from the complainant, she also suggested additional training to avoid future misunderstandings.
“Some of the confusion that occurred in this matter, I think, may have occurred because there was not the same basis of knowledge [among board members] of Robert’s Rules of Order and understanding about the proper motion within your own board meeting,” Gerbig said.
She made three recommendations: have board training and inservice on the public-meetings law, specifically the rules related to board-member communications both inside and outside of board meetings; have board training and inservice on Robert’s Rules of Order; and consider a self-evaluation policy and process.
Seyfer said the board would establish a self-evaluation policy and, during the board’s summer retreat, would talk about Gerbig’s recommendations, have a review of Robert’s Rules of Order and continue to review best practices year after year.
Sherman said she supports the board receiving better training. She said community citizens on school boards are held to the same high standards as politicians and government officials, but most do not have the same knowledge base.
“Masking wasn’t the issue,” she said. “How we go about governing and making decisions – that’s the issue, and that needs to be sound.”
What’s the Cost?
Board member Jeremy Schwab asked attorney Mary Gerbig this spring what her investigation of December board-member communications would cost the district, but he said she had not gotten back to him as of late May. Board president Stephen Seyfer told the Peninsula Pulse that “the board’s legal fee is information protected under attorney-client privilege and will not be discussed in public session.”