Photo Raises Questions about Stillwater Area School Board Members

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Submitted photo

A photograph sent to Stillwater Current Friday afternoon appears to show five members of the Stillwater Area Public Schools Board of Education sitting at a table together at Meister’s Bar and Grill after Thursday night’s meeting.

The photo comes in the midst of a lawsuit alleging open meeting law violations by members of the Stillwater Area Public Schools Board of Education.

Here is a screenshot of the School Board members during Thursday night’s meeting:

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According to Minnesota’s Open Meeting Law, a meeting is a “meeting” for purposes of the law when a quorum or more of the governmental body is gathered—in person or by electronic means, whether or not action is taken or contemplated.”

To form a quorum for a board of seven people, four or more members of the board must be present.

The photo sent to Stillwater Current apparently shows five members of the board — Paula O’Loughlin, George Hoeppner, Kathy Buchholz, Amy Burback and Tom Lehmann — sitting at a table together.

Minnesota’s Open Meeting Law does not cover “chance or social gatherings;” however, the perception of such a meeting has drawn suspicion from local residents.

“The open meeting law does not apply to chance or social gatherings of members of a public body,” the law states. “However, a quorum of a public body may not, as a group, discuss or receive information on official business in any setting under the guise of a private social gathering.”

If a quorum gathers, there is a presumption that it is an open meeting, according to Minnesota Newspaper Association attorney Mark Anfinson.

“In that case, members of the governmental body may argue that the meeting was strictly for a social occasion,” Anfinson said. “But given the situation the Stillwater School Board finds themselves in, arguing that they are simply meeting for social reasons doesn’t seem real credible by members of the public. To be skeptical of this type of gathering is legitimate. It certainly invites suspicion.”

Messages left for school board members asking if they met after the meeting, what was discussed, if they have met in groups of four or more in the past, and if in their opinion, the open meeting law was violated were not immediately returned.

If school board members respond, this post will be updated.

A lawsuit against the district, filed by 834 Voice, includes allegations of Open Meeting Law violations by way of group emails and serial meetings.

A KSTP report last month claims the Stillwater school district held closed meetings with school board members before they voted on the BOLD proposal to close three elementary schools.

“A January email from Superintendent Denise Pontrelli’s office warned board members to meet with her individually or in groups no larger than three,” according to KSTP’s report. “Board members were specifically told “no fours please” when asked to schedule their meetings to discuss the controversial school closures.”

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