The Missoula County Public Schools Board of Trustees will meet in executive session later this week to review the performance of the district’s superintendent – the highest paid public school administrator in the state.
Trustees say Thursday’s meeting will be closed to the public, citing state law that keeps the performance review of public employees private, including Superintendent Alex Apostle.
“Every employee of the district gets an evaluation and they’re held confidential between the district and the employee,” said Joseph Knapp Jr., chairman of the board. “By law – not by my choice – this is a confidential review and I can’t release it to the public. If I do that, the district would be liable.”
Trustees last year amended and extended its contract with Apostle. In doing so, they increased his salary by 13 percent, from $155,000 to $175,000 a year.
That contract, which remains in place, came with another salary increase to $200,000 in 2014. Apostle’s current contract with the district is set to sunset in June 2016.
Trustees will have four options, then, at Thursday’s meeting.
“His contract will play out unless we intend to extend it, alter it or terminate it, and I’ve got no wind of anyone doing any of those things,” said Knapp. “There will be no vote at the meeting if there’s no change to the contract.”
Last year, the board’s approval of Apostle’s contract, and attendant pay increase, ignited a public firestorm. Trustees were blasted by teachers, staff, students and taxpayers, who voiced frustration over the raise, and the process through which it was offered.
Several trustees were voted off the board as a result. Because Apostle’s contract was signed last year, trustees said the raise couldn’t be reversed.
They also said the latest performance review wouldn’t be released to the public.
“We have legal constraints on what we can and can’t do,” Knapp said. “One could make the argument that the public has the right to know, and I appreciate that. But we’re constrained by law when it comes to (Apostle’s) performance.”
Mike Meloy, an attorney who runs the Montana Freedom of Information Hotline, agreed that state law allows trustees to close performance reviews and keep Apostle’s review confidential.
Meloy cited several cases in which Montana newspapers have attempted to challenge the law, including the Missoulian v. Board of Regents. In that case, Meloy said, the Missoulian asked for the performance evaluations and sought to attend the interviews of new University of Montana presidents.
“The court ruled against the paper and reasoned that since the regents would be discussing performance issues, privacy would clearly outweigh public disclosure,” Meloy said. “In my view, the decision is wrong-headed.”
In a separate case filed more recently, Billings Gazette v. City of Billings, the court also ruled against the newspaper.
In that case, the court concluded that the status of the public employee shouldn’t reduce his or her right to privacy.
“In any event, under present state law, they can close the meeting,” Meloy said.