Lesson learned,” a desirable result in any school setting, was the message coming out of Tuesday’s Monadnock Regional School Board meeting when Chairman Scott Peters acknowledged the board’s June 15 consideration of staff stipends should not have been conducted out of public view.
At issue was a proposal to spend roughly $450,000 of federal COVID-19 relief funds on staff stipends to recognize their performance during the pandemic. That’s one of the permissible uses of the federal funds, and the board approved granting the bonuses to 334 employees at the June 15 meeting without any public airing of the proposal. When initially questioned about the action, Peters cited legal advice the board received and told the board at its Aug. 17 meeting that “I don’t for a moment feel that we acted inappropriately.”
By Tuesday night’s meeting, Peters felt differently, stating that the June 15 closed-door vote to use the funding for stipends was a “misstep” and should have been held in public. He even went further and sought to take full responsibility for the action. While Peters’ reversal is welcome, the board’s action was more than a misstep, on two significant levels.
First, by holding the discussion and vote out of public view the district’s residents were denied any opportunity to weigh in on a significant expenditure of funds. The $450,000 in stipends amounts to 2.3 percent of the district’s annual staff compensation. Creating the bonus pool to recognize extraordinary staff effort might well be fully justified, particularly given the additional challenges teachers and staff have faced during the pandemic. But so too would have been using some or all of those funds for other permissible and necessary purposes to address COVID-19-related expenditures, some of which may now need to be funded at property taxpayer expense.
District residents deserved the chance to be heard on the matter, a point made by Adam Hopkins of Troy, the district’s budget committee chairman, who called the board’s action into question. “[H]ow is a member of the public supposed to remain informed and hold our representatives accountable,” he asked at the board’s Aug. 17 meeting, “if the discussion on such a large item is not on any agenda [and] it’s held in non-public session?”
Further, although Peters’ willingness to fall on his sword and take ownership of the decision is commendable, the board itself bears full responsibility for its failure to conduct the public’s business in public. In going into non-public session, the board cited a Right-to-Know law exemption that permits non-public discussion of “the compensation of any public employee.” Clearly that exemption would allow for a non-public discussion of an individual staff member’s compensation and presumably would have permitted the Monadnock board to consider in closed session the specific amount of any individual’s award from the pool. But relying on the exemption to hold a broad discussion of creating an aggregated bonus pool for employees could mean holding virtually any discussion of compensation for employees as a group out of public view.
Moreover, even if the board believed in good faith the law allowed it to hold the stipend pool discussion and vote in secret, the question it failed to ask itself was whether it was in the best interests of the district’s taxpayers and residents to deny them a public airing. New Hampshire’s Right-to-Know law is in many respects only a permissive statute. It begins with the premise that “[o]peness in the conduct of public business is essential to a democratic society” and says the law’s purpose is to ensure “the greatest possible public access.” It then spells out certain situations in which a public body may — but is not required to — conduct its business behind closed doors. Nevertheless, school boards, municipal governments and other public bodies too often start with the mindset that, whenever the law might allow them to discuss a particular matter in non-public session, they should close the doors.
The public transparency and accountability that the Right-to-Know law commands would have been far better served by the Monadnock board if it had first asked itself, “Why shouldn’t the stipend pool discussion and vote be held in public?” Let’s hope that’s an additional lesson learned.