December 10, 2001 11:00 pm

The La Grande School Board needs to take some time and re-evaluate its role.

The elected directors who make up the school board are representatives of the public at large. The school board members are not elected to represent the school administration or special or personal interests. As representatives of the public, their actions as board members are subject to scrutiny by the public. But the La Grande School Board has a policy in place that limits the publics ability to comment on board members actions if the comments can be perceived as complaints. The policy is wrong and in the view of The Observer, illegal under Oregons Public Meetings Law.

The school boards policy pertaining to criticisms of staff members/school board misconstrues the intent of the portion of the Public Meetings Law that pertains to permissible purposes of executive closed to the public sessions. The boards policy makes complaints against elected officials off-limits in public session, which is not the intent of ORS192.600(b), which was written to provide a closed session to consider the dismissal or disciplining of, or to hear complaints or charges brought against, a public officer, employee, staff member or public agent, unless such public officer, employee, staff member or individual agent requests an open hearing.

The section refers to public officers and employees or agents. The preceding subsection, in fact, specifically permits an executive session to consider the employment of a public officer, employee, staff member or individual agent.

Elected officials are not hired. Their actions are intentionally open to public scrutiny, whereas employees are not.

The districts policy has been in place for several years, but it did not come to light until Director Shari Bennett overstepped her authority as a board member by lobbying for retesting of a student for a grade change and in reviewing records of a foreign student exchange program. Comments about Bennetts actions were relegated to a closed session at the last school board meeting. Based on the boards errant policy, citizens cannot comment publicly at school board meetings about Bennetts actions. Such a prohibition flies in the face of open government and does a disservice to the public the board is elected to represent.

Elected officials who abuse or overstep their authority must be held accountable. Bennett should be held accountable, and part of accountability is hearing citizens who want to voice their concerns.

The school board needs to revise its policy and perhaps the state needs to do the same with its law to distinguish between paid representatives of the district and those who are elected to represent the public. Elected officials are accountable only to the public. The public has a right to know, and to comment on, what its representatives are doing and should be able to do so in an open board session.