The day after a called meeting in which the board met in closed session before voting to switch superintendent search firms, a Georgia Press Association attorney said Tuesday the board broke the state's open meetings law. The board's leadership insists the law was followed.
The nine-member board unanimously voted to go into closed session during a called meeting before its regularly scheduled work session Monday. As members rose from their seats to leave the board room and talk privately in the Muscogee County Public Education Center, a reporter alerted board secretary Karen Jones that the board failed to state the reason for the closed session, as the state's open meetings law requires.
Jones notified board chairwoman Cathy Williams, and Williams announced the purpose of the closed session was to discuss a "personnel" matter.
About 20 minutes later, members returned to the board room and -- without discussion -- unanimously voted in open session to enter an undisclosed professional services agreement with Brock, Clay, Calhoun & Rogers LLC of Atlanta and Marietta, Ga., the law firm that helped the board hire its past two superintendents, Susan Andrews in December 2008 and John Phillips Jr. in January 2003.
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Monday's action effectively fired search firm McPherson & Jacobson LLC of Omaha, Neb.
The Ledger-Enquirer relayed that scenario to David Hudson, the Georgia Press Associaton's general counsel. In an email response Tuesday, Hudson wrote:
"Under O.C.G.A. § 50-14-3(b)(2), a vote may be taken to meet in closed session for 'discussing or deliberating upon the appointment, employment, compensation, hiring, disciplinary action or dismissal or periodic evaluation or rating of a public officer or employee or interviewing applicants for the position of the executive head of an agency.' Dealing with extending, terminating or making a contract with an outside vendor is not a 'personnel' matter under this Code section, and should have been dealt with in an open meeting."
Board attorney Jorge Vega and board chairwoman Cathy Williams insist the board followed the law. They said the board didn't discuss the contract in closed session. The only topic in the closed session was compensation for the next superintendent, Vega said.
"It was all done appropriately," Vega said.
He objected to anyone accusing the board of breaking the law.
"I think it's irresponsible for someone to simply say that," Vega said. "It's bothersome that someone would make such a statement without knowing what was discussed."
"If the conversation started to stray from the personnel issue," Williams said, "I stopped it."
The notion to change search firms was first broached, Vega said, during the Dec. 10 closed session. The board didn't come to a consensus about the four candidates interviewed in closed session Dec. 5 and instructed Vega to determine whether Brock and Clay would be available now.
The board hired McPherson & Jacobson in July, after Andrews announced in March her plan to retire and Phillips became interim superintendent when she left on June 30. Brock and Clay wasn't available then, board members said.
Monday's meeting was the first for the board since Dec. 10. During the lull, Vega updated board members with emails and sent them a contract draft the first week of January, he said.
Williams said board members knew they would vote on the contract Monday, but that action item wasn't part of the agenda. She acknowledged the juxtaposition of the board emerging from closed session and voting on something undisclosed without discussion would raise questions.
"I can see how that looks fishy," she said.
Williams explained that there wasn't public discussion about the contract because "there was so much comfort with Brock and Clay and excitement that we could get them."
Read more on how the school board is now expecting to pay in full the fired search firm here.