Facility committee, Open Meetings Act subject of Othello School Board discussion

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Cheryl Schweizer/Sun Tribune - Othello School Board member Tony Ashton said he did not think the district's facility committee was subject to the Open Public Meetings Act.

OTHELLO — A committee asked to identify facility needs in the Othello School District will continue to livestream its meetings, and the meetings will be open to the public. But it will not be considered subject to the provisions of the state’s Open Public Meetings Act. That was the outcome of a discussion at the regular Othello School Board meeting Monday.

The committee was set up after district officials commissioned a study to determine possible costs of a proposal to move to a kindergarten through eighth-grade format. The estimate was in excess of $30 million, and did not take any growth into account. As a result Othello School Board members set up a committee to study what would be needed for future growth and any remodeling.

The committee includes five people with kids in school, and one of those dropped out. Committee members voted on a replacement, using a secret ballot. Board member Ken Johnson expressed concern about that, saying it might have been inconsistent with the Open Public Meetings Act.

“I feel they’re doing work for the board, and myself I think should be subject to the Open Meetings Act,” Johnson said. The question was referred to the OSD attorney, who suggested the committee’s deliberations follow the steps outlined in the OPMA, just to be on the safe side. “What we’re asking this group to do is go out and find us a couple alternatives. They’re doing work for the board on this.”

“But they’re not taking any action,” said board member Tony Ashton. “For me that’s the distinction. My personal feeling is, it’s a slippery slope.”

The committee is holding its meetings in public, Ashton said. “To me to officially say that now this is an open public meeting of the board is a step too far, because I don’t think it is. I understand what you’re saying, I just disagree.”

Ashton said was skeptical of the reactions of some people, whom he didn't name, to the committee's action. “I have an issue with the reasons of why this came up, and why it hasn’t come up the first two meetings. I know another person contacted somebody else on the committee to try to start a fire with this as well. I don’t know if that person contacted you or not, but to me it’s disingenuous.

“I just feel like there’s people that want to railroad, and when they don’t get their way they want to try to find ways to circumvent things that are happening. I’ve seen it happen in this town, this city and in other organizations, and as an elected official I don’t feel like I need to bow down to any of those people. They can vote for me or against me if they want, but I don’t think creating an issue is fair.”

Johnson said he’s only interested in ensuring the group takes things like any possible violation of regulations into account. “I just want them to be very cautious as they move along.” Johnson said he’s most interested in making sure the group conforms to state regulations, if the committee is subject to them.

“I feel like this committee is trying to be transparent,” Ashton said. He said he doesn’t mind if the group provides notification of its meetings, but he doesn’t believe the committee is subject to the OPMA. Board members Jenn Stevenson and Mike Garza said they agreed with Ashton.

Cheryl Schweizer can be reached via email at education@columbiabasinherald.com.

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