The McDuffie County Board of Education may have violated state law when they spent an hour in a closed session earlier this month talking to a former school system employee, in the view of counsel familiar with the State Open Meetings Law.
During the board's regular Feb. 12 meeting, trustees met behind closed doors with Robin Browning - who resigned her position as administrative assistant to Superintendent Mark Petersen last July.
While public boards often vote to go into closed - or executive - sessions, officials are limited to discuss only three topics: personnel, land acquisition and legal matters. On Feb. 12, school board members - according to an affidavit filed in accordance with state law - met in executive session "to discuss or deliberate upon the appointment, employment, compensation, hiring, disciplinary action or dismissal, or periodic evaluation or rating of an employee."
The trustees discussed a series of new hires for about 20 minutes before they called in Mrs. Browning. And that is when school board members should have reconvened in public, according to Georgia Press Association Attorney David Hudson.
Since Mrs. Browning is no longer an employee of the school system, "it would be improper to close the meeting for personnel discussions or deliberations and have Mrs. Browning in attendance," Mr. Hudson said. "Anything that Mrs. Browning would have to say would be evidence or argument that should be presented in an open meeting."
School board members did finally invite the public back into the meeting, after Mrs. Browning had left and members had met privately for a few more minutes.
None of the school board members nor Mrs. Browning would say specifically what - or whom - was discussed during the hour-long closed door session.
"It was about Robin (Browning) and one other employee, and that's all I can say, because it's personnel," said board Chairwoman Georgia Hobbs
The night of the meeting, Mrs. Browning said she was there because she had been told something negative was in her personnel file, and she came to request a copy of those records. Mrs. Browning did not sign up for public input at the meeting, but she said she handed the board members a packet and a letter requesting they talk with her.
That opportunity had been afforded her shortly after she resigned last July, according to former school board Chairman Jerry Randolph.
Mrs. Browning said she talked to each of the board members individually at that time, but not as a whole in executive session.
"They all knew about everything, so what good would it have done?" she said.
Apparently, she changed her mind after the last election, which brought three new faces to the board.
"We just kind of gave her the opportunity to come and appear before the board. And that's what she did that Thursday night, and at this point, I'd really rather not say anything else," said Bob Smith, who took office in January.
When Mrs. Browning appeared at the board meeting, Dr. Petersen said he was surprised and had no idea she would be there.
But board members were not surprised.
"I had heard her name mentioned in the past, but I did not know her from Adam's housecat, you know. Her situation happened before I came on board," Dexter Lovins said. "We had never had any kind of conversation about her coming. I had an idea, and I had heard some scuttlebutt that she might be there, okay. But as far as having any concrete evidence that she was going to be there, I had not heard that."
When interviewed by The McDuffie Mirror after the meeting, Mrs. Browning said she was not pursuing any legal action concerning her resignation or the circumstances surrounding it.
"I can't do anything else, it's all up to the board now," she said.