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Citing a desire to ‘speak freely’ about leadership styles, Minneapolis school board bars public from meeting

The board’s attorney gave members the go-ahead to meet in private after reviewing an opinion issued regarding a similar meeting held by the St. Paul Board of Education.

Thursday night, seven board members convened behind closed doors to discuss what board chair Rebecca Gagnon called “leadership capacity building.”
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs

Minneapolis School Board members aren’t afraid to admit there’s room for improvement when it comes to getting along. They just don’t think that the work of getting to know one another needs to happen in the public eye.

So on Thursday night, seven board members convened behind closed doors to discuss what board chair Rebecca Gagnon called “leadership capacity building.”

The meeting had originally been scheduled as a public session, as is legally required of any meeting where a quorum of elected officials may be discussing matters of official business. Though there are some exceptions under Minnesota law allowing for closed-door meetings — negotiating labor contracts, discussing employee evaluations and disciplinary actions and conducting real estate transactions — the session did not fall into any of those categories.

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Even so, the board retreat was switched to a closed meeting Thursday morning after the school district’s attorney pointed out the St. Paul school board had been given the state’s approval to hold a similar meeting in private earlier this year. “As our agenda at tonight’s retreat is in line with that decision, we are closing the meeting,” Gagnon stated in an email.

But at least one expert familiar with the state advisory opinion for St. Paul said Minneapolis should be careful in using such a cut-and-paste approach. “To the extent that you start moving away from the exact facts discussed in the opinion, you start to enter a little bit of a twilight zone,” said local attorney Mark Anfinson, who represents the Minnesota Newspaper Association. “The boundaries of the St. Paul opinion are so ambiguous that it’s very hard to say, exactly, where they might be crossed. That’s the mischief of opinions like that.”

Precedent set in St. Paul

Last fall, the St. Paul Board of Education asked the Minnesota Department of Administration’s Information Policy Analysis Division (IPAD) — the authority on state open meetings law — to issue guidance last fall on whether or not they could legally hold a meeting behind closed doors.

At the time, a number of relationships on the board had soured, especially after members ousted Superintendent Valeria Silva — a move that prompted board member Jean O’Connell to resign. The remaining board members knew they needed to make some changes, so they accepted a proposal from consultants to help facilitate a team building effort.

In response to an inquiry from the school district’s attorney, the Department of Administration advised the St. Paul board that it would not be violating open meeting laws if they wanted to meet privately with a facilitator to “improve trust, relationships, communications, and collaborative problem solving among board members” — so long as they did not stray into any matters of official business.

MPS board chair Rebecca Gagnon
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
MPS board chair Rebecca Gagnon: “Speaking freely, we will more likely be able to achieve our goal of becoming a more cohesive and collaborative Board.”

Faced with a similar desire to smooth out its board dynamics — a situation complicated by a failed superintendent search prior to the hiring of Ed Graff and three new members — the Minneapolis board decided it would be nice to do so without the pressure of public scrutiny.

“They’re not discussing business,” the district’s general counsel, Amy Moore, said in an interview Thursday night at the Davis Center, where the board was meeting in private in a room down the hallway.

Moore said she had given them the go-ahead to meet in private after reviewing the advisory opinion issued in the St. Paul case and concluding that the Minneapolis board retreat met the same criteria.

Asked if she thought the public should just trust the board would avoid talking about any official business, she replied: “Yeah. Is that such a bad thing? My job is to help them have space to build trust and communication. They’re a new board and they’re trying to do better.”

‘Speaking freely’

The goal of the retreat was “just to get to know more about each other — our likes, dislikes, how we communicate, how we interact with people,” vice chair of the Minneapolis School Board Kim Ellison explained in a phone interview. They all took a personality quiz online, she said, to help get the conversation started.

The exercise was planned as a follow-up to an earlier board retreat, she added. In January, the board held a retreat to help orient the new board members: Bob Walser, Kerry Jo Felder and Ira Jourdain. It’s the sort of thing school boards routinely do when there’s a change in leadership. In the past, the Minneapolis board has typically conducted even these “getting to know you” type conversations in public. But, Ellison contended that past experience has proven that having these types of conversations in public can deter board members from fully engaging.

“A couple of years ago, we had a board retreat that was kind of the same thing and one of the directors talked about a painful experience with her mother which was part of the reason why she was driven to do certain things, and it was in the paper the next day,” Ellison said. “So there was a fear that people wouldn’t be comfortable enough to be open and honest in any discussion, as we were getting to know each other, if there’s a possibility that some painful story might be in the paper the next day.”

Gagnon offered similar rationale: “Speaking freely, we will more likely be able to achieve our goal of becoming a more cohesive and collaborative Board,” she wrote in an email. 

From the perspective of a first-time school board members, Walser said he also felt meeting in private would yield greater results. “I expect that this will be relationship work that’s hard or impossible to do in the public eye,” he said in an email. “Our general counsel is very clear and firm about these boundaries: We are reminded of and have to observe them for each executive session.”

Board member Don Samuels couldn’t make the board retreat Thursday evening, due to a prior commitment, but in a phone interview, he said he hated not being there and thought it was going to go a long way in helping the board develop a “solidarity of mission and collaboration.” Having formerly served on the Minneapolis City Council — where things tend to be a bit more “combative” and “balkanized,” he said  —  he asserts a school board simply cannot afford to conduct business in such a divided manner.

board retreat agenda
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
MPS board chair Rebecca Gagnon: “As our agenda at tonight’s retreat is in line with that decision, we are closing the meeting.”

“I don’t want to be a board that gets divided along some hard line in the sand, that goes forward with some kind of majority that ignores the minority,” he said. “We don’t want that. I want to keep debate, conversation, alive and understand that compromise is part of government. I think we just have a strong sense that we need to be a team and that we need help in functioning in our roles in a productive way, which is a healthy thing to do.”

Contacted again after the meeting was pulled from the public calendar, Samuels maintained that while open meeting law is great for preventing abuse, he thinks the board’s decision to meet in private to address dynamics and establish trust was the right call.

“The path to that SEL [social, emotional learning]-informed community requires a level of openness and vulnerability that will not be achievable, nor be safe, under public scrutiny,” he wrote in an email. “As a result, relationships would be trapped at the level of postures and positions, while motives would be subject to conjectures, assumptions and suspicions. Ultimately, that leads to misplaced distrust and compromised effectiveness.”

Board member Nelson Inz was the only other board member absent, also due to a scheduling conflict. He represents the district on the West Metro Education Program board, which met at the same time. “I’m bummed I can’t go,”  he said. “I think it’d be better if everybody was there. I want to work toward a highly functioning board as much as possible.” 

While he couldn’t be there, he supported the board’s decision to hold their retreat in private. “I honestly don’t think that the personality profiles need to be public,” he said. “I was uncomfortable with that from the beginning.”

Asked to share his thoughts on making the retreat private, board member Siad Ali indicated he was impartial. “I also do believe it’s going to be a genuine discussion. There’s nothing we are hiding,” he said. “For me, I’m okay with public. I’m okay, also, with private.”

Room for interpretation

Anfinson says he has no problem with the open meeting law not applying to a true training session, where board members are strictly talking about procedural and operational functions. But he doesn’t think the opinion the state issued to the St. Paul school board set very clear boundaries around what does and what does not constitute official business.

“The troubling thing about the opinion is once they’re in a closed meeting; you could say all day they’re not supposed to talk about anything having to do with public business,” he said. “But it’s so easy to slide into that, where they start raising examples just to illustrate problems or issues that have come up in the past.”

In St. Paul board’s inquiry into the legality of holding a private meeting, they were clear from the get-go that they’d be using a third-party facilitator (along with union leaders and school administrators) in their discussions.

In Anfinson’s opinion, that matters quite a bit. “In those meetings, there was going to be a facilitator conducting the training,” he said. “I think that significantly diminishes the possibility that you’re actually discussing or deliberating about matters within your jurisdiction.”

Stacie Christensen, director of IPAD (the state division that issued the opinion in St. Paul), acknowledged this detail as well. “The conclusion was based on prior case law precedent that folks have to be talking about official business in order for the open meeting law to apply,” she said. “There was a prior attorney general’s opinion that kind of dealt with a training type of situation, where the attorney general said in certain training situations — where official business is not discussed — then the open meeting law may not apply. [The St. Paul school board] made the argument that official business was not going to be conducted because there was this facilitator present that was going to be talking about interpersonal skills and that type of thing.”

Prior to the start of the closed-door board retreat in Minneapolis Thursday, it was unclear, even to the district attorney, whether a facilitator would be present.

As it turned out, Gagnon invited Yoshiko Chino and Jonathan Bucki, two facilitators with the Dendros Group, a St. Paul-based leadership consulting group, to lead the three-hour retreat. Superintendent Graff and board administrator Jesse Winkler also sat in on the meeting. District spokeswoman Tonya Tennessen says the district paid $1,000 for the facilitators’ services.

Facilitator or no facilitator, not everyone agrees with the board’s decision. Having participated in a similar retreat that was open to the public, former Minneapolis School Board Member Tracine Asberry said transparency and accountability are incredibly important on the school board, especially given the current political climate nationwide.

“Dealing with disagreements, tensions — those things are part of it,” she said of serving on the board. “They’re also not uncommon. What’s important is to demonstrate, as elected officials, as adults, how do we wrestle with these hard decisions with conflict with colleague and move through this and make the best decisions for students. I think the public deserves to see that from every angle, even if it doesn’t make them look good.”

Anfinson has a similar interpretation. “I must confess, I’m profoundly skeptical of the notion that elected public officials need help with the process of working together. It sounds like something you do at grade school, not at the high levels of the democratic process,” he said, pausing before offering one final thought with a laugh of amusement. “What would the founders think of such stuff?”