At recent meetings the Sheridan School Board has received training from the Montana School Boards Association in order to improve the flow of communication between the district and surrounding community.
It’s important to maintain an effective system of communication between the board and the rest of the community when it comes to confidential information, said Rhonda Boyd, vice chairperson for the Sheridan School Board of Trustees.
The school board’s obligation to its employees and the public is especially important when dealing with personnel issues, where the communities’ right to know what’s going on is weighed against an individual’s right to privacy. So when students, teachers or staff leave a school district unexpectedly, the board is often put in a tough spot when people come to them asking why.
At the November and December school board meetings, MSBA attorney Kris Goss provided the board with some training on the law when it comes to discussing confidential information, personnel issues and what may or may not be discussed in a public meeting.
“We needed the guidelines that we can answer those questions,” Boyd said of the training presentations given by Goss. “Its always good to keep the school board operating the way that it should be, following proper protocol and rules and laws.”
According to publications from the MSBA, the duties of a trustee is to set educational goals and create policy for the district to ensure success, while at the same time creating an environment that allows the superintendent, principal and teachers to design objectives that meet those goals. While individual trustees have an obligation to be informed about what is happening in and around the school district, they are limited in their authority to act outside the collective authority of the board.
Boyd explained that word travels quickly in a small town like Sheridan, and things that are going on in the school district can often become a matter of local small gossip. At the same time, “sometimes gossip can put things way out of proportion,” she said.
“Instead of getting frustrated, I think that the MSBA is trying to teach us ways that we can find solutions to different situations without endangering somebody’s privacy,” Boyd said. “The school board has tried to work around those issues and present as much of an honest information system as they can legally.”
Article II, Section 9 of the Montana Constitution guarantees all persons the right to examine documents of all public bodies or agencies of the government its subdivisions except where the demand of individual privacy clearly exceeds the merits of public disclosure. If the question arises about whether or not the merits of public disclosure override the right to privacy, a court must decide the point.
Public meeting law dictates that the board may only discuss and take action on items listed on the published agenda for the meeting, and discussion of personnel issues is prohibited during this time. If an individual has a question or concern about a personnel issue, they are encouraged to raise the issue through the Uniform Complaint Procedure or contact the school district superintendent.
As for the board’s efforts to work with members of the community toward accomplishing educational goals and generating feedback with a positive outlook for the district, Boyd says it’s an ongoing process that will only get better with time.
“They’re understanding how to address issues and how to follow through to find out answers,” she said.