Hastings School Board meets in special session to discuss release of legal correspondence emails. Photo by Dan Solovitz.
School board member requests emails

Board to vote on plan for viewing documents

By Dan Solovitz

A Hastings School Board special meeting was held on Nov. 9 at the HMS Media Center. Discussion was focused on the availability to all board members of specific correspondence that has been requested and, so far, effectively withheld. While details of the requests have not as yet publicly been made clear, the topic has been referenced in recent meetings and discussed, albeit with little to no resulting action. What was made clear from the dialogue is that the data requests appear to relate to information at least one board members would like prior to voting on the pending renewal of Superintendent Bob McDowell’s contract, which is set to take place on December 1.

Director Carrie Tate opened by saying, “Per the last regular board meeting, I had requested the legal correspondence from Nov 1st, 2021 to the present, because I would like this information to understand some of the legal invoices that I’ve been reading. A lot of them have had information regarding school board work among other things, and I would like to have this information to make a solid decision on whether or not to renew the superintendent’s contract.”

Tate continued, “There are legal invoices referencing open meeting laws; for example, First Amendment issues. These issues have not been brought forward to the entire board. I think that they are worth doing so. Superintendent McDowell forwarded an email after our last board meeting stating that it is legal’s advice that I should not be privy to this information. I forwarded an email several months ago to my lawyer for a second opinion. The fact is that Chair Davis and Superintendent McDowell were aware I had a lawyer on March 2nd, in my communication to them.”

She then demonstrated her belief that her access to the information is being refused specifically because she made it clear that she has had a personal lawyer involved. “Frankly, I don’t see why that is pertinent to my receiving information regarding district operations, as an elected official,” she said. “Any person sitting on this board could’ve had a lawyer and not been truthful and transparent about that fact, but for some reason I am being punished, I believe, for being honest about the fact that I checked with my own legal counsel about a question that I had regarding our personal emails.”

Vice Chair Stephanie Malm highlighted a concern for the privacy of the content requested. “I’m totally fine with you having the ability to review the documents,“ said Malm. “But for the same reasons that you brought up, even unintentional forwarding, communication with an outside attorney, or a community member is potentially client-attorney privileged. Even if it’s unintentional, I want us to take precautions to protect the district.”

Malm suggested that perhaps a single copy of the documents, either digital or hard copy, be placed in the district office for board members to review, with the caveat that before being allowed access to the files members should sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) of some kind agreeing to not disseminate or copy them. Without that protection, she hesitated to give her consent.

In congruence, Director Jessica Dressely said, “I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with having us sign a non-disclosure statement, but I think we should all have access to the same information. I think it’s very important that we have that transparency.”

Director Lisa Hedin offered tentative support, saying, “If I could see a recommendation of how this data could be provided or made available under a context where we, as board members, could review it and it would not be shared, I would consider supporting that. But I would need to see that first, respecting the board’s position and respecting our roles as individual board members. I would hate for us to get sideways, intentionally or unintentionally, with a data release.”

Noting that he had little issue with the proposal of protecting the data with NDA paperwork, Chair Brian Davis added, “Making it a document that is available in the district office, either digitally or as a hard copy, is fine with me as well. I don’t have a huge problem with that. I think the only thing we’d have to deal with relatively quickly is to make sure that our current [legal] firm addresses something like that quickly.”

Mapping out a timeline, Hedin noted it might be possible to do this in Nov. 22 regular session. If that were not possible, she suggested December.

Davis responded that the board was able vote that night, as they were sitting in special session, and the documents could be made available to the board within a shorter period of time. Wanting to avoid pushing the issue further down the road if possible, he said, “I would rather try to get this resolved and act on it. We’re in a position where we can do that, and I’d like to try to get that done.”

In response to the timeline discussion, Tate said, “The rationale for the request was to determine if we are going to extend the [superintendent’s] contract. We have to notify Superintendent Mc-Dowell by December 1st if we don’t plan to do that. Are we planning on having a special meeting on Nov. 22, or are we planning on having that discussion as a board to vote whether or not we are moving forward with a new contract? Obviously, we would have to have that conversation before we are able to make a decision as a board.”

Davis replied, “We could vote on that particular piece on Nov 22, assuming that the board wants to take it up.”

A brief recess was called by Malm, requesting some time for research and clarification of details. After the recess, Davis stated that there was no problem in providing the data, as long as it was kept in the district office for board members to review, and that no copies would be made. He also noted that no NDA would be required, as it’s already an expectation and obligation of all board members to respect the privacy of the district.

Pivoting to the potential reasons for the data request, Davis said, “Once said review has taken place, we can, on the 22nd, have a conversation as to whether or not a new contract would be issued. Now, if at any point in that conversation someone wants to go and do something that’s performance-based, despite the fact that we’ve already done a review, at that point we would have to go into a closed session in order to do that.”

Tate said, “One of the reasons I was asking about that is the timeline. The 22nd is less than two weeks away, so if we’re requesting that this information be pulled and reviewed to be ready for a conversation, it’s a tight timeline.”

Davis said that the review of the information would take place prior to the meeting. “I’m talking about determining to do that now, and therefore be prepared for the 22nd, said Davis, adding, “Obviously, everybody will make their best efforts to get that relatively quickly, and make it available to us in the office once we elect to do just that.”

In reference to allowing discussion of the superintendent’s performance in the contract decision, Hedin said, “I would like to point out, as Chair Davis did, that in June of 2022 a year-end evaluation was completed on the superintendent. It categorized six different areas: structural leadership, finance and operations, policy and law, equity, communications, and board relations. In all of those categories, our superintendent’s evaluation fell in the effective to highly-effective range. I don’t feel that that’s relevant to a decision about contract renewal.”

Tate then made a motion to have the correspondence pulled between the district and its legal firm, from Nov 21st through the present, for review by all board members, with the understanding that the information will go no further than the board, and the motion passed.

November 16, 2022