Merced school district tramples open government law

The Merced Union High School District board meeting called to cut services and teachers during stressful economic times ended up causing great stress to open government. The meeting room doors were closed off and on; even a board members was denied answers; and the results of closed session decisions were not clarified. -DB

Merced Sun-Star
March 13, 2009
By Danielle Gaines

The board of trustees at Merced Union High School District flouted state open meeting laws at their marathon meeting Wednesday night in front of a room full of teachers who were waiting to hear if they would lose their jobs.

Doors were locked, agenda items were discussed out of order and closed session decisions were relayed to the large crowd with little clarity.

At times, even board members weren’t let into the loop.

In one example of the flawed meeting, a district employee refused to answer a board member’s repeated questions about the potential cuts.

Chief Business Officer Diane Hockersmith told board member Dave Honey the answer to his question would come later in the meeting, after his vote to cut jobs and services from the district budget had already been cast.

Honey voted no on the budget cuts.

The meeting’s problems started early. On Tuesday afternoon, the district announced after the required 72-hour notice under the Ralph M. Brown open meetings laws that it had moved the location of the meeting.

Though district administrators may have done that with good intentions, hoping to accommodate a larger-than-usual crowd, the move violated the Brown Act.

Further violations to state opening meetings laws came when doors to the meeting were literally locked at various times during the night.

The door to the Merced High School cafeteria locked automatically each time it shut. More than once, a Sun-Star reporter trying to cover the meeting was locked out of the building.

Later, when the board returned from closed session, board president Ida Johnson stated that more than one employment resolution had been passed in the session.

The district again appeared to violate the Brown Act by failing to appropriately agendize the items discussed in closed session.

California Government Code requires that local agencies list specific headings for each item of business to be discussed in closed session. Closed session agenda item 4.1 included only one issue: “Public employee: discipline/dismissal/release.”

The noise of the crowd overpowered Johnson’s muffled statement, and it was unclear how many resolutions passed, though it was at least three and possibly four.

That mattered, since the room was full of teachers who may have lost their jobs in the district’s closed session. Outside the cafeteria an hour later, some employees were still unsure whether their jobs had been cut.

“I don’t think anyone knew what the announcement was,” said Lori Meyers-Jantz, an Atwater High School teacher who didn’t lose her job.

“I think we all just sat there trying to figure out if it was something further down on the agenda.” Maria Serrano, an Atwater High School teacher who did lose her job, agreed the board should have been more open.

“Four-to-one, it’s been approved. That was it,” said Serrano, a Harvard graduate who was recruited to teach for the district less than two years ago. “No ‘I’m sorry.’ Nothing.”
At least one of the employment actions taken Wednesday night appears not to have been included on the board’s closed-session agenda.

One of the resolutions passed behind closed doors included the release and reassignment of a district administrator to a classroom teaching position.

The employment transaction shouldn’t have been classified as discipline, dismissal or release, because it was a decision made for financial reasons, according to board budgeting documents.

Instead, it should have been listed as a “public employment” agenda item.

Other school districts in the county list each employment consideration separately and identify which positions are being considered. Merced Union High School District does not.

Throughout the meeting, with no notice, the board also shuffled the order of agenda items.

Though that wasn’t illegal, the board typically moves agenda items at the start of its meetings. Its departure from that norm created confusion for both a Sun-Star reporter attempting to cover the meeting and for other members of the public.

As a result of the unannounced shuffling, the Sun-Star had no representative at the meeting during two key votes on the sale of general obligation bonds and another on a change in high school science curriculum.

Those items were moved up while presentations on district test scores and wellness policies were pushed until later. On another agenda item, board member Dave Honey expressed concern that the budget cuts did not match his personal calculations.

He asked several times for clarification from District Chief Business Officer Diane Hockersmith.

Her chief response was that his concerns would be answered in her next report, an update on the second interim budget report.

Honey asked several basic questions about the budget cuts that Hockersmith refused to answer, including how the proposed cuts compared the district’s budget shortfall. Ultimately, board member Tim O’Neill made a motion to approve the cuts.

Honey and Sam Spangler voted no and the motion passed.

Merced Union High School District board policy 2220 states that the superintendent and all areas under his authority must answer to the board.

According to Education Code 35161, the governing board of any school district retains ultimate responsibility over the performance of all district actions.

At the end of the meeting, which lasted into Thursday morning, the board adjourned directly into another closed session, forcing members of the public to leave the room before they could ask questions about what had taken place during the meeting.

Copyright Merced Sun-Star 2009