Board members allege threats, legal violations during school board gathering

NEWTON–Multiple Newton Board of Education members stated that the board violated open meeting law during a two-hour-long executive session Wednesday evening.

The gathering, held at 5:30 p.m.Wednesday night, was aimed at changing district rules to allow an athlete to compete at a state tournament after violating the district’s code of conduct, according to four sources with knowledge of the matter.

Newton Board of Education Member Brenna Haines said she plans to file complaints with the Kansas Attorney General’s office. She said she was threatened to vote a certain way during the special Wednesday board meeting, and the board of education violated multiple state laws governing meetings, including the Kansas Open Meetings Act. 

“Us holding that meeting, we were under duress,” she said.

At the heart of the issue is a two-hour executive session to discuss matters related to a student. 

According to the school district, Board Members Matt Treaster, Mallory Morton, and Luke Edwards called the meeting on Tuesday to discuss a student-related matter. 

State law allows for closed-door sessions to discuss confidential student information. Open meeting laws don’t allow a government to discuss and craft general policy during executive sessions. 

Max Kautsch, an attorney whose practice focuses on open meeting law and who represents the Kansas Press Association, explained the Kansas Open Meetings Act.

“The purpose of recessing into executive session, generally speaking, is to deal with private matters to some extent,” he said. “Making policy that doesn’t apply to any particular individual doesn’t violate privacy concerns.”

Haines, as well as Board Members Andy Ortiz and Melissa Schreiber, stated that board members discussed or crafted district policy during an executive session or outside of the public meeting, all over their objections.

“Andy tried to stop it,” Haines said. “Melissa tried to stop it. I asked twice personally before I got up and left and walked out. I stopped the conversation and said, ‘If we are discussing policy, you are opening up these doors.’”

Haines left at 7 p.m., and the executive session continued until 8:30 p.m. She said she didn’t feel comfortable being party to the board’s actions.

Board President Mallory Morton responded to allegations of other board members that the meeting was conducted improperly. 

“As you know, I cannot confirm or deny, because I am not legally allowed to discuss executive session, but I am confident that there were no KOMA [Kansas Open Meeting Act] violations,” Morton said.

Edward also said he did not believe the Board violated the law. 

“I believed there was information other board members needed to be aware of regarding a student matter. The only way for that information to be shared with all board members is to hold an official meeting, and since it involved a student matter it had to be discussed in executive session. “

Following, with no discussion, Edwards recited a motion that would change school policy to allow for deviations to the athletic code of conduct of the district, based on administrative discretion. The change was also made to be retroactive to past decisions and infractions.

“The motion made during Wednesday night’s meeting was to ensure the language in the NHS code of conduct, regarding discipline, reflects language that can be found in the student handbook,” Edwards stated later in the week adding that he didn’t read a prepared statement but language already present in the student handbook. “I did not make the language up Wednesday night- other than changing the word “chart” with “code of conduct” and adding “when deemed appropriate,” he stated.

That motion was seconded by Board Member Dayna Steinmetz and approved shortly after by a vote of 4-2. Ortiz and Schreiber voted against the motion.

Kautsch was asked about the meeting and shared Haines’s opinion that the action broke open meetings law.

“They needed to recess for student matters, and they needed to come back out and craft and discuss policy. Not doing so was a violation of KOMA,” he said.

The reason for the meeting

The board was informed by email Tuesday that district administration had addressed a student matter.

 “I got an email at 12:58 p.m. that there was a situation with one of our athletes and the admins were working on a solution but he would not be participating in an activity,” Ortiz said. 

Superintendent Fred Van Ranken stated that three board members, Edwards, Morton and Treaster, then called for a special board meeting. The notification was sent out at 1:51 p.m. Tuesday, according to Van Ranken. The meeting was scheduled for 5:30 p.m., Wednesday. 

“I got an email that there was an emergency meeting, and I started to piece two and two together,” Ortiz said. 

Van Ranken declined to provide any information about the circumstances leading up to the meeting, administrative actions, or what took place during an executive session, as it involved a student-related matter. 

“The goal was to discuss a student matter around the code of conduct policy and what could be considered extenuating circumstances,” Van Ranken said when asked for an explanation of why the meeting was called.

Van Ranken did confirm that district administration did not request to hold the meeting. 

Edwards explained his reasoning to being one of the board members to call the meeting and eventually approving the language change.  

“After discussions I had prior to Wednesday night’s meeting it became apparent to me that the ability to exercise discretion is needed in our code of conduct similar to the student handbook,” he said. He said that he believed administrators have used this discretion in the recent past dealing with students found to have violated the school’s code of conduct. 

” If at any time punishments for students involved in activities, beyond wrestling, were lowered in a way that is not reflected in the code of conduct, I would expect that was done because administrators were using good judgment,” he said. “I want them to continue to do so when they feel it is appropriate.”

Haines gave her opinion of why the meeting took place.

“There was a student matter that had to be pushed through,” she said. “There is no secret about that. The state participants in this sport are leaving Friday afternoon, and we had to get this done right away.”

Four sources with knowledge of the matter confirmed an original news tip Harvey County Now received. According to the sources, the meeting took place due to certain board members’ wishes to consider allowing an athlete to participate in the state wrestling tournament. The high school administration learned that an athlete had used a nicotine product in the school. The code of conduct dictates a suspension of 20 percent of the season for such a violation.

Edwards said that the addition of language to the code of conduct was not a requirement for anyone to participate in wrestling.

According to wrestling tournament brackets, all the wrestlers Newton qualified for state participated in the tournament as of Friday.

“As coalition coordinator for Harvey County Drug-Free youth, I”m very disheartened,” Schreiber said about the meeting and its result.

A legal meeting?

The meeting began with confusion on whether the district could legally hold it. 

State law requires BOE members to be given two days’ notice of a special meeting unless they waive their right to the notice. Two days’ notice would have meant that the meeting would be held on Friday at the earliest.

“Unless waived, written notice stating the time and place of any special meeting and the purpose for which called shall be given each member of the board at least two days in advance of the special meeting, and no business other than that stated in the notice shall be transacted at such meeting,” the law states.

Three board members, Ortiz, Schreiber, and Haines, declined to sign the waiver of notice. 

The board contacted its legal counsel, John Robb, for an opinion if it could move forward with the meeting with board members refusing to waive notice.

Robb told them all seven had to sign the waiver or the district had to wait the two days the board members were entitled to have of notice. 

Following more discussion, the Kansas Association of School Boards attorney, Luke Soba, was called, and he stated that only four needed to sign the waiver. The meeting then continued forward. 

“We followed advice by legal counsel,” Morton said of the decision to move forward, noting that the Kansas Association of School Boards also represents the district.

Harvey County Now has contacted the Kansas Attorney General’s office for an opinion on if Wednesday’s gathering constituted a legal meeting. It had not heard from the office as of the time this article was published. 

Haines said she planned on filing a complaint to the attorney general’s office about the lack of two-day notice. 

Behind closed doors

The meeting featured an executive session from 6:25 to 8:30 p.m.  

The session included the high school principal and athletic director at various times. The session was extended six times, according to board clerk notes.

Reporters were not allowed to attend the executive session. Raised voices were regularly heard from the hall. 

Three board members did opt to discuss events within the session.

“They talked about policy at the end,” Ortiz said. “I really feel like there’s a bigger issue here that needs to be talked about.”

Ortiz said multiple times he attempted to prevent policy discussion. He also confirmed Haines’s statement on discussion saying she also attempted to stop policy discussion. Schreiber also confirmed policy discussion happened and that Haines and Ortiz tried to curtail the discussion.

Haines alleged that Board President Mallory Morton threatened her multiple times, saying if she insisted on holding the student accountable, district staff or students could be held accountable for any past deviations from policies.

Morton, when asked about Haines’s statement, said she could neither confirm nor deny what went on in the executive session, as it was not legal for her to discuss. 

Schreiber was asked about the exchange and didn’t know if it constituted a threat.

Edwards said no threats took place. 

“No threats have been made during any board meeting I’ve been a part of,” he said.

Haine also alleged a conflict of interest with the vote. Multiple board members voting in favor of the change had children competing at the state wrestling tournament.

“There’s a huge conflict of interest here,” Haines said. “I believe somewhere in our board policy if you have a conflict of interest you’re supposed to recuse yourself.”

Edwards, denied having a conflict of interest in his actions.

“I pride myself in being objective in the way I treat people, in my job, and as a school board member,” he said. “If I ever lost my ability to remain objective due to personal bias I would recuse myself.”

Moving forward

The BOE has a meeting on Monday, Feb. 27, at 7 p.m. The issue is not listed on the agenda for discussion. 

The Kansas Attorney General’s office is responsible for investigating violations of the Kansas Open Meetings Act. 

Members who violate it can be fined up to $500. Violations can also be used as possible grounds for public recall of violators, according to the AG’s website. 

The site states, however, that fines are rare.

Less literature exists regarding if a meeting didn’t constitute a legal meeting. The statute governing special meetings does not list repercussions for violating it.

Editor’s note: Harvey County Now, as a practice, does not use unnamed sources. In this case, however, editorial staff considered the risk of repercussions against the sources as well as the public interest of the information the sources provided. It made a decision that the information warranted use, since the information could not be acquired any other way.

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