That board has allegedly been practicing revisionist history since being slapped with a lawsuit over closing a series of meetings—to discuss the hiring of a new superintendent (see “Faithful board faces lawsuit,” April 15, 2004)—to the public.
The Ravalli Republic filed a petition earlier this month asking that the minutes recorded during the closed meetings of March 13, March 16 and March 22 be brought to public light.
Since then, the board has been accused of altering the minutes of the closed meetings by striking and adding entire paragraphs during a special April 14 board meeting.
That action prompted a call for a temporary restraining order by Steve Carey, the Republic’s attorney (and, unrelatedly, the Independent’s), which was approved by Ravalli District Court Judge Jeff Langton on April 23.
“There were wholesale changes to the minutes that we sought access to,” Carey said. “I moved for a temporary restraining order so the court could review the minutes. The school board should maintain the document in the form that it was developed when they had the closed meetings. It’s quite unusual for someone to alter the minutes under those circumstances. But, we’ll see what the court says.”
The issue arose after three witnesses to a school board meeting took issue to what they perceived as tailoring of the minutes. Local resident Dixie Stark decided to file an affidavit.
In the affidavit Stark said that board members Gina Schallenberger and Doug Banks, both objective origins policy proponents, wanted to close the meeting, but District Clerk Caroline Rennaker told the board they could discuss corrections in an open meeting “without revealing the details.” So the meeting proceeded and the public remained present. The board picked through the minutes using paragraph and page numbers to determine what to strike and what to keep.
“From the start of the meeting [at 3 p.m.] until 4:40 p.m. the board made changes to the minutes,” Stark said in her affidavit. “It appeared that they added and subtracted numerous whole paragraphs. It appeared that certain board members had written down the changes they wanted to make. At one point, board member Doug Banks asked why changes he wanted weren’t incorporated. Caroline Rennaker didn’t agree he had said what he wanted inserted, and she refused to do so.”
After reviewing Stark’s affidavit, Langton issued the temporary restraining order without notice, because, he said, “based upon information and belief, [the Darby School Board] would take any delay as an opportunity to alter, discard, or destroy the board meeting minutes.”
Langton also ordered the board to attend court on May 5, the day after school board elections, to answer for the changes to the minutes.
“They have the right to make corrections, but it seemed they were making major changes of minutes under court order which could be construed as destroying evidence,” Stark said in an interview. “If it gets much hotter I think Darby will explode. We made it through the fires of 2000. We’ll make it through this.” Stark is leery about media attention to the ordeal, though, because she also conducts local fundraising, and doesn’t want to be snubbed for her actions.
“In my observations of this board majority, they don’t seem concerned about the schools and teachers,” Stark said. “It’s hard when people say they don’t have an agenda, but do things that regular board members don’t do. They’ve lost their focus.”
Politicians are nothing without an issue, and the objective origins policy seems to be the proverbial great divide between the candidates in the upcoming school board elections. Erik Abrahamsen and incumbent Bob Wetzsteon are against the policy, while Robert House and incumbent chair Gina Schallenberger are for it.
Last week, when yard signs bearing the names of both Schallenberger and House started sprouting up around Darby, the pro-objective origins camp found itself in hot water yet again, this time with Commissioner for Political Practices Linda Vaughey, based in Helena.
“The signs did not have disclaimer information,” Vaughey said. “But the group that made the signs will bring them into compliance.” According to the disclaimer law, election materials are not to be anonymous.
The materials were paid for by a political action committee called Montana Advocates for True Science. Vaughey said that the PAC will engage in the political arena beyond Darby’s School Board election. It’s not evident yet who has contributed money to the PAC because it is not required to provide financial information until 20 days after the election. Even though distributing anonymous materials can carry fines, Vaughey said that the signs will be changed and the matter was dealt with informally.
House said that leaving the disclaimer off of the sign was unintentional and that the signs are being fixed. When asked who donated money to the PAC that paid for the signs, he answered, “I don’t really know.”
Darby’s election is May 4. firstname.lastname@example.org