Lodi: School district interviews said to violate district’s own open meeting bylaw

The Lodi Unified School District trustees held closed-door interviews for board openings and selected two finalists. The only problem was that in doing so they violated a long standing bylaw to hold the interviews in a public meeting. -db

June 11, 2010
By Jennifer Bonnett

Three Lodi Unified School District trustees finished closed-door interviews of applicants for the board Thursday and named two finalists, Jack Bray and John Carvana.

The two finalists will now be interviewed by the full board of trustees Tuesday night. Other applicants are welcome to participate in that meeting as well, said board president Richard Jones.

Trustees are moving to replace Harvey Bills Sr., who resigned. The interview process has drawn criticism because it was held in secret, in an apparent violation of the board’s own 34-year-old bylaw.

A section on provisional appointments reads, “The board shall interview the candidates at a public meeting, accept oral or written public input and select the provisional appointee by a majority vote.”

Three of the seven applicants to fill Bills’ seat were interviewed Wednesday afternoon, with three more conducted Thursday morning. The seventh was disqualified when it was determined that she does not live in the specific trustee area.

Jones said Thursday that he recognizes the issue with the bylaw language, and said it may need to be rewritten. “There are things we have to clean up. You’re right, it’s there,” he added of the rule mandating applicants be interviewed in public.

“We’re not trying to hide anything. The names are out there. We know who applied,” he said.

“But the committee chair wanted to keep the integrity of the process and keep it closed. We’re not trying to be anything but transparent.”

It appears this is the way provisional appointments have always been made in the recent past, and until now the process was never questioned.

“Sometimes the bylaws are ambiguous, at least according to legal counsel,” subcommittee president Joe Nava said Thursday.

Nava told the News-Sentinel on Wednesday morning that he’d have no problem with a reporter covering the interviews.

But when a different reporter showed up for the first interview at 3 p.m. Wednesday, an employee from the superintendent’s office said the district’s attorney advised the staff that the public could be banned from the interviews because only three members of the seven-member board were present.

On Thursday, Nava said he initially welcomed the press because he had not yet spoken to legal counsel or Jones.

The group that conducted this week’s interviews did not violate the state’s open-meeting law since a majority of its current six board members did not meet. The subcommittee is made up of three trustees: Bonnie Cassel, Ken Davis and Nava.

Some feel the closed-door interviews are reflective of the continued mistrust between the teachers’ union and the administration that has been brought up publicly more than once.

George Neely, an outspoken board critic, showed up at the district office early Thursday to talk to the subcommittee about its alleged bylaw violation, and was told that the candidates had already been screened to ensure they were eligible.

“This is in clear violation of what is stated in the bylaws, as it skirts the public’s right to witness the interview and to give input,” he wrote on his personal website.

The former Creekside Elementary teacher was among the 250-plus teachers to receive layoff notices. He has already publicly announced that he will run for a seat on the school board in November.

He takes issue not only with the closed-door meeting, but also with the actual interviews. Pointing to the adopted board bylaws (see box), Neely said the committee should only confirm that applicants are eligible to serve before announcing those names and interviewing the candidates at a public meeting.

When told of the subcommitte’s recommendation of two people early Thursday afternoon, Neely added, “Then am I to take it that the other four did not meet the eligibility requirements? Did they not live in area 6? Were they under 18? Were they not registered voters?

“That committee is not to narrow down anything in a closed meeting except those that do not meet the specific eligibility requirements. This is wrong.”

Sonja Renhult, another pink-slipped teacher, said trustees state at public meetings that working together is important. “However, by keeping the interview process private when the bylaws state it should be public, they are clearly keeping us out of the process,” she said.

But Jones said all six applicants will be invited Tuesday to answer questions from both the board and community members. He chalked up the distrust to an inherent skepticism of politicians, especially those in contract negotiations.

“It’s something I wish we could change,” he said.

Attorney Peter Scheer, with the watchdog group First Amendment Coalition, said it is clear that trustees violated their own bylaws, and it’s subject to be challenged if someone wishes to do so.

About provisional appointments:

In order to draw from the largest possible number of candidates, the board shall advertise in the local media to solicit candidate applications or nominations. A committee consisting of less than a quorum of the board shall ensure that applicants are eligible for board membership and announce the names of the eligible candidates. The board shall interview the candidates at a public meeting, accept oral or written public input, and select the provisional appointee by a majority vote.

Source: Lodi Unified School District board bylaws, adopted November 1976 and revised May 2009

“Here there’s absolutely no reason to exclude the public from the interview process. Good policy adheres to open government and argues that they should conduct these interviews in a public setting,” he said, adding that he understands some candidates might not want to be identified if they weren’t successful in their bid to sit on the board.

Since the names were already released by the district, Scheer said he doesn’t see a “rational reason” to conduct the interviews privately.

“Why violate the bylaws and create a risk of some sort of legal challenge?”, he said.

In the meantime, Carvana, one of the two finalists, said he looks forward to Tuesday’s meeting.

“I’m very excited,” said Carvana. “I think it’s a great opportunity. I look forward to the challenge.”

Faced with having to vote on a new district budget, he said he’ll read the budget proposal during the weekend if he is given a copy. Otherwise, he will abstain from voting.

Carvana didn’t offer an opinion as to whether the committee’s interviews with the six applicants should have been held at a public meeting or in private. “That’s a tough question, only because I’m sure the committee followed the guidelines,” he said.

Carvana, who lives in north Stockton, is an education and career consultant for a company called Level Playing Field Consulting. He has a son and daughter who graduated from Bear Creek High School.

Bray, who is a retired school administrator, could not be reached for comment late Thursday.

Applicant Frank Michael said Thursday that he was not opposed to open interviews. “But it’s up to (the committee) to make the decision of what they want to do,” he said.

Applicant Ron Freitas declined to comment.

The final applicant was Karen Hettervik. The provisional appointment was required to reside in trustee area 6, which roughly encompasses portions of south Lodi and north Stockton, but is mostly rural. It includes Elkhorn and Larson elementary schools, among others.

All applicants were paper-screened by the same three-member subcommittee of trustees last week when Nava announced this week’s interviews.

The subcommittee is expected to recommend an appointment to the board Tuesday, and all members will vote on it at Tuesday’s meeting. The successful applicant will be administered the Oath of Office and seated at the same meeting the 2010-11 budget should be adopted, according to the adopted timeline.

The appointee will serve until the next board election in November. At that time, he or she could file as a candidate and run for election to finish out the term of office, which expires in November 2012.

When Jones was appointed a provisional candidate in 2004, he said he and four other applicants went through the same closed-door sub-committee interviews before he was recommended to the entire board.

Staff writer Ross Farrow contributed to this report.

Copyright 2010 Lodi News-Sentinel