by LAURA HAYES and SARAH SQUIRES
Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) has violated state transparency law after a committee took a private vote in January on Winona Senior High School (WSHS) course changes. The vote came four days after a training session with Minnesota School Board Association (MSBA) staff, which covered the requirements of the law that was broken. That law — the Minnesota Open Meeting Law — requires that such votes take place during public meetings.
The illegal vote was taken using an email poll by the district’s Curriculum Advisory Committee (CAC). Such permanent committees of the board must follow OML requirements. WAPS Interim Superintendent Kelly Halvorsen expressed confusion about the statute’s requirements, admitted to the violation, and said that similar, illegal online meetings had taken place in the past.
The original January CAC meeting when the votes would have taken place in public was canceled due to weather. Rather than rescheduling the meeting, district staff instead solicited the private vote by asking the committee to decide on the course changes using a Google poll.
During a subsequent CAC meeting this week, Halvorsen said that she didn’t know that the law — which has been on the books for decades — applied to the committee. “It was definitely no malice or intent on my part. I felt like it was an efficient way to get your feedback,” she said.
Minnesota Newspaper Association attorney Mark Anfinson, an expert on Minnesota transparency laws, said that there was no doubt that this was a violation of state statute. “That procedure does not comply with the Open Meeting Law. Period. The Open Meeting Law makes it clear that decisions by public bodies or their committees must occur in a public meeting,” Anfinson said. “The requirement is based on the simple fact that transparency equals accountability. If you can’t see what public officials are doing, then there’s a loss of transparency and accountability.”
During the CAC meeting, Halvorsen opined that the vote was illegal simply because public notice hadn’t been given. However, Google polls cannot be used for public votes regardless of whether the public is notified. “That’s more like Alice in Wonderland,” Anfinson responded. “Semantics aren’t sufficient to avoid the requirements of the OML.”
School Board member Jeanne Nelson, who is the board representative on CAC, called the vote an "unintended and unfortunate" situation and said that the district would "redouble its efforts" to ensure the laws were followed.
Halvorsen noted that all of the course proposals passed unanimously save eliminating a theater arts class, which passed with a 10-4 vote. Because the vote was taken privately, it is unclear why some committee members objected to the change. All of these course changes were passed when they came to the School Board table in early February.
Halvorsen said that she would follow the law in the future and told committee members that they were not at fault for the legal gaffe.
MSBA representative Gary Lee, who provided the WAPS inservice training in January, said that such training was the best way to avoid violating state law. Awareness is a big deal, Lee said.
“Some government officials really want to abide by the law but don’t understand. Others, you could [train] every week and they don’t want to,” Anfinson said.
Anfinson occasionally provides in-depth training for local government officials who struggle to abide by the requirements of the OML.
CAC — a committee made up of staff, community members, School Board representatives, and students — oversee course changes, district academic programs, and curriculum alignment.
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