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WV Board of Education criticized for limiting public comments

Tom Campbell

West Virginia Board of Education members received pushback Wednesday over their meeting agendas’ newly stated ban on members of the public speaking to the board at meetings about items not listed on the agendas, and the board’s president says he wants to stop the ban.

Board members also passed new operating procedures Wednesday that remove specific limitations on and requirements for receiving $100 “per diem” payments for meetings and reimbursement for expenses related to their duties as board members.

All board members were present Wednesday, though Scott Rotruck teleconferenced in and it was unclear if he was available for every vote.

Like county school boards, the state school board has a “delegations” portion, during which people in the audience who sign up to speak can do so.

The new ban on speaking about items not listed on agendas first appeared on last month’s agenda. It was also on this week’s agenda.

State board members didn’t strictly enforce the ban last month, allowing Nicholas County school board President Gus Penix, who showed up as an audience member, to ask them to approve his school board’s proposed school closings. The proposed Nicholas school closings, which the state board must vote to approve before they can occur, were not listed on the agenda for this month or last month.

Penix spoke again Wednesday.

An opponent of proposed Fayette County school closings — Carolyn Arritt, who wants to save Meadow Bridge High — said Wednesday that the ban listed on the agenda had persuaded her to not sign up to address the board, despite attending the meeting.

One of the three speakers Wednesday was West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee, who did say he was speaking about an issue on the agenda: the listed ban on speaking about unlisted items.

“As we travel across the state we have many things that we see that may need immediate attention, that’s not on the agenda,” Lee said, particularly noting the fast-changing pace of state legislative sessions.

Board President Tom Campbell said he wants to remove the ban from future agendas, but said he may want to restrict to one or a few speakers speaking on an issue if they’re all speaking on the same side of the same issue.

The per diem pay and expense reimbursement procedures change was approved, with no nay votes heard, as part of a single vote to approve the board’s entire “consent agenda,” which is generally supposed to be for matters considered routine.

Before its approval Wednesday, the procedures change was not put out for a 30-day public comment period like a normal board policy, such as the ones dealing with education standards. Board attorney Mary Catherine Tuckwiller said this wasn’t required because the procedures document was “entirely internal.”

The procedures change may affect the spending of public money.

The procedures that Tuckwiller said had been in effect before Wednesday listed, among other things, three conditions that had to be met in order for a member to receive the $100 per diem payment, generally given on each day of a meeting, and reimbursement of expenses like travel and meals.

Among those three listed criteria was that a member’s activities had to be a “‘duty’ derived from the Board as a corporate body, not an act performed by choice by an individual member outside the corporate authority of the Board.”

The procedures also said members could receive per diem pay and expense reimbursement for events they attend and/or speak at, at the request of the board or board president. The procedures also said that for any out-of-state events not sponsored by the National Association of State Boards of Education, members should seek pre-authorization by the board’s president or operations director in order to be eligible for per diem pay and expense reimbursement.

Other than for these events and events like regular board meetings, the procedures said members were not eligible for per diem pay. They were eligible for expense reimbursement for other events, but only if they submitted a one-page-maximum-report on the event they were wanting to be reimbursed for.

The new procedures take these requirements and limitations out and just cite the broad state law provision regarding the per diem pay and expense reimbursement: members “shall be paid one hundred dollars per diem each day or any part thereof spent in the performance of their duties under this article, and shall be reimbursed for all reasonable and necessary expenses actually incurred incident to the performance of their duties.”

“My thought is, you follow state code, you’re a constitutional officer, that’s the last thing that as a board president I need to be worried about, that’s your responsibility,” Campbell said. “I don’t have time to police the board members.”

Reach Ryan Quinn at ryan.quinn@wvgazettemail.com, facebook.com/ryanequinn, 304-348-1254 or follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.

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