Marsh Valley school board admits to years of open meeting law violations

From the Idaho State Journal

By Jeff Papworth

ARIMO — The new Marsh Valley School District 21 board chairman says the board has unknowingly violated the Idaho open meetings law for years by conducting its entire annual superintendent evaluation behind closed doors.

For all of the 13 years that K.G. Fonnesbeck has been a Marsh Valley school board member, he said the board’s vote on approving the superintendent’s evaluation and contractual changes have been accomplished in one motion in executive sessions, a method the board recently discovered was an open meetings law violation.

Fonnesbeck, the board’s new chairman, said the board first learned it was committing the open meetings law violations when it was notified by the Idaho Department of Education’s attorneys last month that it had broken the law at its Dec. 10 meeting by approving Marsh Valley School District Superintendent Marvin Hansen’s evaluation, contract extension and pay increase during a closed-door executive session.

On Dec. 10, the school board unanimously approved Hansen’s evaluation, contract extension and 3 percent salary increase in one motion during the executive session before announcing the moves during its subsequent open meeting before the public later that night.

The board opened Tuesday’s meeting by unanimously approving a motion acknowledging December’s open meetings violation and voiding the closed-door approvals regarding Hansen.

While the closed-door approvals were a violation, Fonnesbeck added that it was within the board’s right to do the actual evaluation in a private session.

“As soon as you know you’re doing something wrong, you change it and do it the right way and that’s what we’ve done,” Fonnesbeck said. “Now we know. And in the future, it’ll be done that way. Anything that’s a compensation or a benefit will be dealt with in open session.”

Subsequently at Tuesday’s meeting, the school board approved Hansen’s evaluation and contract extension in separate motions while deciding to postpone a decision on his raise until May or June.

“We are not going to give him any kind of pay raise until we have our meeting with our school teachers,” Fonnesbeck said, “and we know what kind of cost of living raises they will be getting.”

Hansen’s evaluation was approved by a 3-0 board vote on Tuesday with new board members Jill Gunter and Paige Armstrong abstaining.

The extension of Hansen’s contract for the 2020-21 school year was then approved by a 3-2 board vote.

“When we feel like we have a really top-notch superintendent, it’s kind of a bonus for them to have that contract extended, so they’re not out shopping or looking to go to another school district,” Fonnesbeck said after Tuesday’s board meeting. “That’s kind of one of those things that helps you keep them around.”

Board member Kathy Egan, who opposed extending Hansen’s contract, said during the meeting, “It sounds to me like we need to err on the side of caution. I can’t see any reason why we can’t push (the decision on the extension) off.”

Also at Tuesday’s meeting, the board unanimously decided to make Fonnesbeck its new chairman. Fonnesbeck took over the chairman’s position from board member Don Nielsen who endorsed him prior to the board’s vote on the matter.

“The only difference is I have the gavel,” Fonnesbeck said about his new position. “The only improvement is if we can improve on our communications. If you look at anything across the country, the No. 1 thing that causes problems is lack of good communications. Anything you can do to improve communications is a benefit. I don’t think I can improve on it any more than Don did, but I will keep working at it.”

Fonnesbeck retired as a Bannock County Sheriff’s Office captain in 2016.

He said he regularly asks law enforcement officers to be present at the school board’s meetings but this recently became an issue when some district residents said the presence of Bannock County sheriff’s deputies at the board’s November and December meetings made the residents feel intimidated.

There were no sheriff’s deputies at Tuesday’s board meeting.

“We hear a lot of bad about our district right now. There’s a lot of turmoil,” Fonnesbeck said during Tuesday’s board meeting. “But when you look at the (Idaho Standards Achievement) test, it’s just amazing that there’s only two schools that scored higher than us in all of Eastern Idaho. That’s a pretty great accomplishment.”

From the Idaho State Journal

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