MCPS administration building

Missoula County Public Schools trustees don't see any reason to revert to their old meeting system.

Last summer, the trustees ditched their meeting structure, putting committees on pause while expanding to bimonthly business meetings.

It was an effort brought to the full school board in a March 2015 business meeting – though “it was in my committee for so darn long,” about two years, trustee Mike Smith said on Tuesday of the former Personnel, Negotiations and Policy Committee.

The board had three committees – the policy committee, Teaching and Learning, and Finance and Operations – and each met monthly, with subsets of the full board (less than a quorum) assigned to each committee. The full board met once a month.

At its board meeting Tuesday night, trustees said they wanted the current structure to continue. No action to revise the associated policies ("Meetings" and "Committees") was taken. Superintendent Mark Thane said that would happen at the July 12 meeting.

“We found that oftentimes, the presentations duplicated between the committee and regular meetings and that all trustees didn’t always have access to all the information that those sitting on the committee had before action was required at the board meeting,” Thane said.

Last summer, the board started its “grand experiment,” as Thane put it. They nixed committees and added a second monthly board meeting.

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Smith said the goal was to make the board more accessible, for trustees themselves as well as the public.

“For people with jobs, this is much more doable than having committee meetings at lunch times,” said trustee Diane Lorenzen. “Committee meetings often got cut short. And it was possible for a quorum to show up at a committee meeting … because we really do need to go to all committees. This eliminates the accidental quorum issue.”

According to state statute, “Business may not be transacted by the trustees of a district unless it is transacted at a regular meeting or a properly called special meeting.”

When the discussion got underway last year, some were concerned that the bimonthly meetings would drag all night since they had so much ground to cover without committees. That hasn’t necessarily been the case.

“Meetings have been efficient and well-run,” said trustee Jennifer Newbold.

Thane suggested keeping the current structure would help as more and more contracts come the district’s way for facilities projects.

“There will be a number of contracts that will need action on a very timely basis,” he said. “To meet only a single time a month with a full quorum of the board would handicap that process.”

Previously, items that came out of committee meetings went onto the consent agenda at full board meetings. A consent agenda is typically used for routine, perfunctory items. School boards vote on the consent agenda as a whole and there’s rarely discussion.

The concern, Lorenzen said in a previous interview with the Missoulian, was that consent agenda approval could appear as if decisions were made by a few trustees in committee, and then approved without fanfare once they got to the full board.

Today, the consent agendas are short. Items that used to be tackled in the three committees now each have their own place during board meetings.

This issue varies by school district, said Montana School Boards Association executive director Lance Melton. Those who don’t have committees often use work sessions to tackle some of those items and to allow for a back-and-forth between trustees and the public.

“The benefit of working as a committee of the whole is that the same people participating in the dialogue and development of recommendations are participating in the ultimate deliberations about the direction on a given issue,” Melton said in an email.

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Last year, some trustees worried they would lose the “flavor” of committee meetings, that the public would not be able to engage as much with agenda items and trustees.

On Tuesday, Missoula Education Association president Melanie Charlson echoed that concern, asking the board to consider building in time for that during regular board meetings.

“There were times during committee meetings where you could have some give-and-take of that conversation,” she said.

Today, at every school board meeting, board chair Marcia Holland is diligent in reminding the public that there can’t be a back-and-forth dialogue during public comment, as the topic brought up would not have been publicly noticed prior to the meeting.

In fact, state statute does not prohibit trustees from conversing during public comment. Instead, the MTSBA advises school boards to refrain from debating something brought up in public comment in order to avoid anything that could be construed as a violation of the open meetings law.

“It is more a matter of keeping the logistics of the meeting manageable, avoiding unintentional violations of the open meeting laws and providing an equitable opportunity of input to all members of the community,” Melton said.

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Reporter for the Missoulian