'BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
Another round of 5-2 votes were at least met with cordial differences of opinion during Thursday's meeting of the Greene County Board of Education.
The board met at the school system's Central Office, where the board members considered a very lengthy agenda that, coupled with a significant amount of discussion, took three hours to complete.
Members of the board have voted in this 5-2 manner for months on many issues, although Thursday's meeting was unique in that tensions never rose and the members remained respectful in their address to one another.
Each time the board voted 5-2 -- which occurred over a half-dozen times -- the two opposing votes were members Kathy Austin and Deborah Johnson. (Please see related article, A-7.)
Among the most debated of Thursday's votes was the one concerning taking minutes in board workshops.
This has remained a hot-button issue for members of the board for months, with Austin and Johnson taking the position that it seems only logical to take minutes at the workshops in order to avoid confusion about recommendations that come out of such meetings.
Board Chairman Roger Jones and others, however, have said that workshops are informal, and designed for members to freely express ideas without being held to them at a later date.
He noted that other boards, including the Greene County Commission, do not take minutes in workshops.
After months of varying debate and legal opinions on the topic, Austin brought before the board this month a resolution to "approve that any time multiple members of this governing body ... convene and make a decision or deliberate toward a decision on an issue relevant to the business of this public body, a meeting has occurred and minutes are required to be taken.
"This includes all committee, regular, special and workshop meetings."
During her presentation, Austin frequently questioned the reasoning behind not having a public record of what took place in such workshops, especially because workshops are open to the public and the members receive payment for attending.
She noted that an opinion letter from attorney Chuck Cagle sent to Jones and referenced at the last meeting actually does recommend that minutes be taken at workshops.
Cagle is attorney for the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents (TOSS).
The letter notes that the Office of Open Records Counsel calls for minutes at all sessions of a governmental body.
Cagle, in his letter, said that this position is "overbroad," as "meetings" are really those in which deliberation occurs, votes are cast and/or members are required to be present.
These characteristics are generally not the case for workshops, which are designed as a means for sharing information.
A governmental body cannot legally cast a vote during a workshop.
However, Austin said that deliberation toward board decisions has been made at workshops, and she noted that the board's calendar always requires all members to be present at the workshops.
"I have, and will continue to advocate, that minutes should be kept, even in such informal settings, due to the fact that the only means for a public body to transmit its actions is through its minutes," Cagle wrote.
Austin further noted that the board's policies on minutes (1.406), school board meetings (1.400), and duties for the director of schools (5.802) all call for minutes at all meetings, making no distinction or exception for workshops.
"I don't understand why any member of this board would not want to follow our policies and the law by keeping official minutes of all meetings of this elected body," Austin said.
"I think this has made this elected body of officials less accountable to the voters."
Board member Nathan Brown, however, asked that the board amend the resolution to exclude taking minutes from workshops, a motion which Tommy Cobble seconded.
This amendment passed 5-2, with Austin and Johnson opposed.
Austin and Johnson also expressed strong disapproval of a recommendation from the system's Policy Committee to require a written request for access to public records maintained by the school system.
The board considered this policy change on first reading. The Policy Committee received it as a recommendation from Cagle, who said he had seen a significant increase of such public records requests occurring across the state.
In response, Cagle sent this recommendation to several school systems for which he serves as attorney.
The new record-request forms would have to be submitted either in person or via U.S. mail. Requests by email would not be sufficient.
Open records requests vary greatly and can include those made by parents, news media representatives or public officials.
The requests could relate to employee salaries, benefits, certain personnel records, bus safety records, and other items.
The school system would no longer accept e-mailed or oral requests, but the system would need to contact the individual to inform him of the status of his request within seven business days.
Austin expressed concern that committee discussion had indicated that the policy would even apply to requests from individual members of the board and from members of the Greene County Commission, but would not apply to requests made by the full Board of Education or by the full County Commission.
Very few requests come from the entire board, Austin said, expressing concern that she would not be able to access information in time for board meetings.
Brown and Jones, both members of the committee, said they had concerns when they first saw the recommendation, but felt it was valuable after considering the possibility of excessive and time-consuming requests.
Brown said he only intended the policy on charges to the individual to apply if many copies were requested.
Austin said that this was too subjective and said that the system's current policy is not broken.
The board again voted 5-2, this time to approve the policy change on first reading.
Near the start of the meeting, Johnson read a lengthy written statement that indicated her aversion to this change, as well as to the board's inclination to not keep workshop minutes and other issues.
She titled her speech "Professionalism."
"I was elected to the school board in November of last year," she said. "Even with that limited experience, it has become evident to me that there are issues with how we deal with each other within the system and how we deal with the public.
"These issues need to be corrected if we are to accomplish our goal of educating the children of our county to the best of our ability.
"Rather than focusing our meetings on how to avoid taking minutes, limiting debate and public involvement, we should be acting as a professional team focused on the goal of educating the children of the county.
"Demanding total control, limiting access to information, limiting debate and demanding blind faith and loyalty are the tools of tyrants and dictators.
"We should be distancing ourselves from even the appearance of employing any of these techniques and be embracing the principles that our country was founded on and that are outlined in our Constitution.
"We should never have an open discussion as public officials where a public record is not kept. If we are elected by the public, paid for our time to attend a meeting, and are discussing public business, then a record should be kept and made available to the public.
"We need to begin acting as professionals with a goal in mind at all times rather than letting the emotions of fear, insecurity and the need for total control to dictate our actions.
"Our leadership through its actions appears to be more concerned with control than the actual goal of education."
Johnson emphasized at the end of her speech that she does not mean this as negative, or a criticism of all that the system is doing. Instead, she said, she means her comments simply as expressions of her concerns with these particular items.
See Saturday's edition of The Greeneville Sun for additional discussion and votes from Thursday's meeting.