‘Isn’t this America?’ Parents allege school boards flout Utah’s open meetings laws, squelch dissent
Coalition seeks legislation to make local school boards and board members more accountable for ethics breaches
A broad-based coalition alleged Wednesday some local school boards in Utah flout the state’s Open and Public Meetings Act, take steps to silence dissent and are otherwise unaccountable for their actions.
Utah Parents United president Nichole Mason told state lawmakers that she was denied entry to a Davis School District Board of Education work session on July 13, 2021. When she sought to enter the building for the board meeting, she had to ring a doorbell and present her ID to enter the district building, she said. Audience members were required to sit three feet apart during the meeting, Mason said.
“This is after all COVID protocols had been ended,” said Mason, addressing the Utah Legislature’s Education Interim Committee Wednesday.
Another Davis School District patron said he was later served with a trespass notice after a board member took offense to his remarks about the seating arrangement and threatened to have him removed from the meeting. The notice was delivered to his home early in the morning by a school district security guard, accompanied by two city police officers, he said.
The notice did not specify what he had done, said Mike Brown, a parent. “There was no recourse, no due process whatsoever,” he said.
“This vague law needs to go away. It is being abused,” he said. “Individuals are using this as a weapon. If they don’t agree with somebody if they don’t like their free speech, then they’re going to silence them and threaten them with trespass.”
“Are we not in America? Why is free speech being weaponized? It’s got to stop,” he said.
The Davis District board meeting was about two months after a Granite School District Board of Education meeting was suddenly adjourned after protesters disrupted the meeting. Several people were charged with disrupting the meeting.
Sen. Kathleen Reibe, D-Cottonwood Heights, said she was at the Granite District meeting. “It devolved into a shouting match and many people came from out of district. And so I believe in the structures of these board meetings,” she said.
Jeanetta Williams, president of the Salt Lake branch of NAACP and a region that includes Utah, told committee members that the Salt Lake City Board of Education is “dysfunctional and needs oversight.”
Williams has expressed concerns that the board’s decision to place former Salt Lake School District Superintendent Timothy Gadson III on leave was racially motivated. He was the state’s first Black superintendent.
Gadson was abruptly placed on administrative leave in July, a year after he was appointed to the role, but the school board has not explained why, saying only it was “a personnel matter.”
Williams said another concern is board member Katherine Kennedy no longer lives in the boundaries of her school board precinct, having moved out of state, yet still participates as a board member. She “refuses to resign and the board president refuses to do anything about it,” Williams said.
Michael Clara, a former member of the school board, told the committee that when he requested financial records during his board service, he was told by administrators that he had to obtain them under a Government Records Access and Management Act request.
“I would file a GRAMA request and then they would charge me for it. I would go and make an appeal with the State Records Committee, and they would hire an outside law firm to fight me on it,” Clara said.
Clara said the board “criminalized” his dissent, to the point an armed officer attended board meetings.
“So in response to that I came dressed like the Frito Bandito to board meetings and after two board meetings and making national news, the police are gone,” he said.
Meanwhile, the district was using GRAMA to track his communications with other government agencies, he said.
Clara said state lawmakers can obtain information they request without being charged a fee. “I think the same (should) happen for school board members and city council members,” he said.
James Evans, a former state senator who also served as a chairman of the Utah Republican Party, said elected school boards, municipal councils or county commissions are authorized to form ethics panels to look into complaints lodged against elected officials, but in some instances, the governmental bodies “are so conflicted that they’re not able to police themselves.”
He raised the example of former Salt Lake City Board of Education member Mike Nemelka, who filed ethics complaints against three fellow board members for “unlawful behavior, discrimination and violation of Utah’s Open and Public Meeting laws.” Nemelka told Evans the complaints went nowhere, Evans said.
Evans said he is working with Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, to amend the statute that created the Political Subdivisions Ethics Review Commission. Bramble sponsored SB180 in 2012, which passed unanimously in the Senate and overwhelmingly in the House.
“We need to be able to change the laws so that there is an opportunity, when there is misbehavior, that there is an opportunity for citizens to file the complaint and it receives the appropriate hearing. We think this will also modify the behavior of many of these local school board members,” Evans said.
Bramble said he has agreed to help solve the problem.
“Bottom line is, we want the ethics committee process to be accessible and to be functioning when citizens have concern about the conduct of elected officials,” he said.
Lexi Cunningham, executive director of the Utah School Superintendents Association and associate executive director of the Utah School Boards Association, told the committee that many local school boards have reaffirmed or updated their ethics statements this fall.
“As an organization we want our members to be trained not only on finances and personnel and policy, but also on ethics. Within the last year, we have offered a training to board members on board member ethics. It is something that USBA takes very seriously,” Cunningham said.
“I have spoken to Mr. Evans and let him know that this is a part of what every board does. We want to be a part of this conversation,” she said.