November 1, 2012 | Volume 42, No. 44

School board taps Miller for open seat

The Haines Borough school board on Monday voted 6-0 to appoint former teacher Ardys Miller to a one-year board seat.

Miller holds a doctoral degree in education and has worked as a dean at College of the Rockies in Cranbrook, B.C., and at Yukon College in Whitehorse, Y.T., according to her resume. A two-year resident, she also has worked as an elementary school teacher.

The vote followed public candidate interviews and an 80-minute executive session of board members. Board members did not publicly discuss candidates or the appointment decision and offered no explanation of their vote at the meeting.

Other candidates for the seat included Dr. Julia Heinz, fisherman Jason Shull, counselor and supervisor J.R. Myers, and tour operator Barbara Mulford.

Later at the meeting, the members elected board member Brenda Jones to serve as president, following a 4-3 vote. Members Miller, Brian Clay, Sarah Swinton and Jones voted for Jones. Members Royal Henderson, Sara Chapell and Ann Marie Palmieri were opposed.

Board discussion on the appointment was limited to whether or not to enter into the executive session. The private session was recommended by superintendent Michael Byer.

Immediately after interviews with the candidates, Byer said: “At this stage, it’s the board’s prerogative to enter into an executive session in order to compare and contrast the applicants in order for each member to cast a more informed vote.”

Byer then told the board that such an executive session was “appropriate…as it may tend to impact the reputation and character of a person.”

“I met with each applicant last week. None of them objected to the executive session. Each of them has a right to have any discussion as it pertains to them held in public session,” Byer told the board.

Jones made a motion to meet in executive session “for the purpose of comparing and contrasting” candidates. Palmieri spoke against it.

“I feel like we can have this discussion in the public meeting and I don’t think anything that anybody’s going to say would be prejudicial to or potentially damaging to somebody’s character. I recommend we do this in the open,” Palmieri said.

Clay said the appointment was a personnel matter akin to hiring a teacher, but Palmieri disagreed. “We’re not talking about a person’s job or impact on their job, we’re talking about candidates. If these five candidates had run for election, they’d have been asked questions in a public forum… There would have been a back and forth. I don’t think this is any different,” she said.

Clay responded: “I’m just saying, as an executive session, as a personnel matter, that’s all it needs to say. There’s no questions asked until it’s in executive session. It can be construed both ways. I think it’s a personnel matter because we are appointing someone to the board.”

Chapell differed with the comparison to a personnel matter and said she’d like to see the board “have as many of our conversations be open to the public as possible” but said she’d bow to board members who felt strongly that an executive session was needed to fully consider the candidates.

On reconsideration, the board voted 5-1 for the executive session, with Palmieri opposed.

In an interview after the meeting, Byer said the idea for an executive session came from attorney John Sedor in discussions they had before the meeting. Byer said he consulted with Sedor because of questions raised about a similar school board appointment a year ago, when members used a secret ballot to choose a candidate, then ratified the secret ballot with a public vote.

Byer was asked whether he believed the public was served by only a private board discussion of board candidates.

“I think the board was trying to make the best decision they could. They could have chosen (a public discussion). They had a choice. It’s a hard decision for an elected body to make on a thing like that. Certainly no one was trying to do anything illegal. I was trying to give the board options to consider,” Byer said.

In interviews, each of the five candidates said Byer had asked their permission for going into executive session previous to the meeting. Heinz said she was not aware before the meeting that she could have compelled the board to discuss her candidacy in public.

Miller told the board she’s been effective in a variety of education jobs because she knows how to work with people. “I always look for the common ground. I have a lot of years of practice at that.”

Board members should maintain a two-way flow of information between the community and school, she said.

State law allows governmental bodies to discuss in executive session “subjects that tend to prejudice the reputation and character of any person.” The law also says allowances for executive sessions “should be construed narrowly to avoid exemptions to open meeting requirements” and “unnecessary executive sessions.”

In a case involving a city manager applicant, the Alaska Supreme Court, in the case of City of Kenai vs. Kenai Peninsula Newspapers, ruled, “Ordinarily, an applicant’s reputation will not be damaged by a public discussion of his or her qualifications relating to experience, education or background or by a comparison of them with those of other candidates.”