School board violates open door law after mask issue at meeting

Clark-Pleasant school board members adjourned a regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday after just two minutes, but things didn’t end there.

The school board voted to end the meeting after about half of the estimated 40 attendees refused to wear masks, despite a district-wide mask mandate. But for about an hour after the meeting ended, a majority of the school board and the superintendent had a spirited back-and-forth with parents and community members about the mask mandate, unintentionally violating the state’s open door law, which says government agencies must hold meetings of a majority of their governing body publicly. Citizens have the right to attend and record the meetings.

School board member Butch Zike, Jr., who stayed in the meeting room with fellow board members Craig Koch and Dave Thompson, said he was aware of the open door law, but did not violate it.

“Absolutely not,” Zike said. “I understand what the open door policy is. … There were no votes taken, and in reality, it was just the public giving us their input without us having anything to do other than filling them in with information.”

Because a majority of the five-member board remained in the room and exchanged information with the public, the conversation met the criteria for a meeting, and since public meetings require 48 hours public notice, the school board violated the law, said Steve Key, executive director and general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association, which the Daily Journal is a member of.

“They couldn’t do that. It was the spur of the moment. It technically would be a violation of open door law. It sounds unintentional, but they created a second meeting without any notice,” Key said.

If a complaint was filed in court, a judge could issue an opinion asking the school board not to hold a meeting without notice again. After that, if the board met again without notice, it could be held in contempt of court, Key said.

If, during the next meeting, the school board directly votes on something that was brought up during the post-meeting conversation, the vote could be declared null and void, though the school board can circumvent that by having a new conversation about it with public comment before the vote, he said.

Despite the regularly scheduled meeting being cut short, the school board was able to vote on all timely agenda items, and will push the rest of the items to the next meeting set for Oct. 26, Superintendent Patrick Spray said in an email.

The district’s mask mandate took effect Sept. 7 at all buildings, and meeting attendees passed signs on the front doors of the administration building alerting them of the mask mandate before the meeting. Spray reminded attendees of the mandate as the meeting started, but several remained maskless.

“It was unfortunate that not all of those in attendance at the September school board meeting were willing to adhere to this request. Because of this, board members moved to end the meeting not long after it started. As a reminder, community members can live stream the board meeting on a digital device, but those attending in person must wear a mask at this time,” Spray said in a statement.

When asked what would happen if parents continue to refuse to wear masks at school board meetings, Spray said Clark-Pleasant schools has not yet determined whether a district-wide mask mandate will still be in effect during next month’s meeting.

“Masks will continue to be required until at least the end of September,” Spray said in an email. “At that time, we will look at our COVID-19 stats and, with the direction of local and state health officials, we will reevaluate where we need to be to protect our students, teachers and staff.”