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A complaint has been filed against a staff member which has progressed through the complaint procedure and has been appealed to the school board. The staff member who the complaint is against has requested the complaint be heard by the Board in public session. We anticipate both sides of the issue may have supporters in attendance. After the board reviews the complaint and the superintendent’s response, may we go into executive session to deliberate or do we have to do all of that in public session as well?

 

If staff member who is the subject of the complaint has requested the meeting be held in a public session, then the entire meeting is conducted in public session, including the board deliberations. If the Board's attorney is in attendance, the Board would be allowed to meet with the attorney in executive session to discuss the attorney’s advice to the board on how to proceed with the complaint. You may want to consider having an attorney present anyway if you think the meeting could get difficult. We have also recommended in some cases to request police presence if there are concerns attendees may become disruptive. You be the judge of how difficult you think it could be. An officer in uniform goes a long way to cool things down.

In any case, discussion of the merits of the complaint will still need to be handled in an open session.

We strongly suggest that you read aloud to all in attendance meeting rules which clearly explain that there is no public input or comment at this hearing. Make sure your entire board is in agreement with this. You do not want one of the board members asking for audience response. Also, make sure your board knows they must be EXTREMELY careful with what they say during the public portion. The best advice is for the board members to limit discussion to clarifying questions. Any discussion which takes place in a public session is documented and can ultimately be used at a later date to assist in establishing violations of state and federal law, district policy or provisions of a collective bargaining agreement.

You should indicate who speaks, in what order and how much time they have.

Overall process and rules look something like this:

  • Rules (READ these out loud to everyone…and provide in writing):
    • No negative comments are allowed about any staff, students or other people other than the one being complained about.  All others retain their right to a confidential process.  
    • We will remove anyone who uses foul language, complains about other people or speaks out of turn.
    • All speakers must wait to be recognized before speaking and must address their comments to the chair.
    • Under no circumstances will the two parties (complainant and alleged perpetrator) be allowed to question or address each other.
    • There will be no public input. The only speakers permitted will be the board, complainant, alleged perpetrator and the superintendent.  (You could allow one or more additional person to speak for each side and the superintendent, or whatever you/the board want. Could be trouble, you be the judge!)
  • Superintendent presents his facts. Should be brief, he gets a second shot for his recommendation after the others have spoken.
  • Complainant is allowed to present their side (give a long limit, like up to 10 minutes; you want them to not have to rush but you don’t want them to be able to filibuster) and have a timer present. Give time signals (Use a yellow card with 2 minutes on it and a red card with 1 minute on it. Bang your gavel lightly at zero +30 seconds).
  • Board may ask questions of the complainant (although in public, limit to questions relevant to the facts of the complaint or clarifying questions).
  • Alleged perpetrator presents their side (allow them to speak for up to 10 minutes).
  • Board may ask questions of the alleged perpetrator.
  • Superintendent presents his/her recommendation to the board.
  • Board may ask questions of the superintendent. 
  • If the board has additional questions of the complainant or alleged perpetrator, they may also ask those after they finish with the superintendent. If they do, the superintendent should be allowed to respond to the board and make any final closing statement/recommendation to the board. ALWAYS MAKE SURE YOU LET THE SUPERINTENDENT SPEAK LAST. His/her closing statement should be his/her recommended board action, including the wording for a motion if your board needs that kind of clarity.

Then the board deliberates. The board is deciding whether or not to accept the recommendation of the superintendent based on whether or not the superintendent acted within his/her authority and followed policy. The board is NOT substituting their own judgment for that of the superintendent. You may disagree with the superintendent’s decision but if s/he acted within policy and his/her authority then the board should defer to his/her judgment, and go change the policy later. If this is in public, say as little as possible. It is okay to move right to a vote, but I recommend at least having each board member make a simple ‘I support the superintendent’s recommendation’ or something similar.

If you think the situation at the heart of the complaint could end up in a lawsuit, the Board should have its lawyer present. The biggest danger is not knowing and understanding the legal requirements and making statements and decisions not consistent with the legal requirements in the particular situation. 

A final bit of advice:  Board member body language goes a long way towards heating this up or cooling it down. As chair, you are most important. Lean forward and look the speakers in the eye, keep your arms open, smile and nod occasionally. Go out of your way to be warm, welcoming and not appear dismissive or arrogant, even if you are thinking very different thoughts in your head. Your objective is to get through this without creating any more conflict than there already is.  It’s a movie. 

For more information on this question, Ask Betsy's Team.