Board of Public Ed to redo vote, pay attorney’s fees in battle over public’s right to participate

Daily Montanan, Montana Federation of Public Employees sued over constitutional violation

By: - June 15, 2022 4:43 pm

(Provided by Matthias Zomer via Pexels.com for the Daily Montanan)

The Montana Board of Public Education has agreed to redo a March vote and properly notice an agenda item at its upcoming July meeting in a settlement with the Daily Montanan and the Montana Federation of Public Employees.

The Board also has agreed to pay $4,500 in attorney’s fees, according to the settlement reached on Friday.

In April, the petitioners asked a Lewis and Clark County District Court judge to void a March 10 decision by the Board of Public Education.

MFPE and the Daily Montanan alleged the Board violated the Montana Constitution’s guarantee of the right of participation and right to know when it added an action item to its agenda on the spot, without adequate public notice.

“Although the Board does not believe its actions precluded public participation, it recognizes the legal arguments of the petitioners,” said the settlement agreement. “The Board is committed to following the spirit and letter of the law, and it will work closely with its legal counsel to ensure compliance with the Open Meeting law.”

The Board of Public Education oversees schools and is made up of seven members appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. 

At the March meeting, the Board’s legal counsel advised it against voting on the item, a Code of Ethics update, listed as an information item, not an action item. However, in the agreement, the Board of Public Education said the settlement did not constitute an admission of guilt. 

“The Board enters into this agreement solely to resolve the matter without further proceedings,” said the settlement.

As part of the settlement, the MFPE and the Daily Montanan agreed to dismiss the case.

The lawsuit followed a controversy over adding the word “equity” to the educator Code of Ethics.

In February, an advisory council to the Board of Public Ed unanimously voted to update the code. The same day, the Governor’s Office issued a statement opposing the addition of the word “equity.”

At the Board of Public Ed meeting that followed, Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras called on the Board to clarify that the advisory council does not have authority to adopt the code and to direct the council to present its recommendations to the Board instead.

The Code of Ethics update had appeared on the agenda as one of the “information items,” not an action item. But the Board took action anyway, striking the revision to the code without advanced notice that it planned to take action.

The Daily Montanan is an affiliate of States Newsroom, which has a mission to produce journalism focused on state government. The Montana Federation of Public Employees is the state’s largest union, with members who attend and comment at Board of Public Education meetings.

The petitioners are represented by Carrie La Seur of the La Seur Law Firm of Billings, Montana.

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. In Montana since 1998, she loves hiking in Glacier National Park, wandering the grounds of the Archie Bray and sitting on her front porch with friends. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana. She worked there from 2006 to 2020. As a Missoulian reporter, she was named a co-fellow by the Education Writers Association to report on a series about economic mobility; grantee of the Society of Environmental Journalists for a project on conservation from the U.S. to Africa; and Kiplinger Fellow in Digital Media and Public Affairs Journalism. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune and Missoula Independent, and she earned her master’s in journalism from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula with her husband, Brock, who is also her favorite chef, and her pup, Henry, who is her favorite adventure companion. She believes she deserves to wear the T-shirt with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”

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