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Closed sessions by school board might be illegal

Recent decisions behind closed doors by members of the McDuffie County Board of Education might have violated Georgia law.

Some residents expressed deep emotion in February when they learned the school board had voted to close the Thomson Middle School building and transfer the faculty and students to another building. No public discussion was held before the decision, neither was the proposed item listed on any meeting agenda viewed by The McDuffie Mirror.

Last week, school board members changed that decision, instead voting to close Norris Elementary School and transfer those students and faculty to the middle school. As before, the decision was announced after a closed session. No discussion about the decision was held among board members during the planning session or regular meeting before the vote, according to meeting minutes recorded by administrative assistant Sheilah Johnson. Mrs. Johnson confirmed no such discussion took place during the March or April meetings.

Mrs. Johnson said board members met Thursday morning, May 13, with a facilities team from the state Department of Education who helped them come up with their Five-Year Facilities Plan as required by the state. McDuffie County Schools Superintendent Jim LeBrun said the facilities plan included closing the elementary school.

"We kind of had last-minute information with the facilities team just in, and everything was just falling into place," Board Chairwoman Georgia Hobbs said. "At some point, you have to make some kind of plans to move forward. You can't decide in September that you are going to move. Moving is a huge operation."

An affidavit signed by Mrs. Hobbs says "at a regular meeting of the McDuffie County Board of Education held on May 13, 2010, the board closed its meeting as permitted by the Open Meeting Acts of Georgia."

The reasons for a closed meeting, or executive session, cited by law are: to review an appeal from a student disciplinary tribunal, to consider a matter involving the disclosure of personally identifiable information from a student's records, to discuss the future acquisition of real estate, to discuss personnel, or to consult and meet with legal counsel pertaining to pending or potential litigation.

The affidavit says the meeting was closed "to discuss appointment, employment, compensation, hiring, disciplinary action or dismissal of an employee."

Georgia Press Association Attorney David Hudson said the closing of a school and personnel discussions can be combined, but within limitations.

"There is no doubt that in the closed session when they talk about closing a school, there had to be discussion about the personnel who work there," Mr. Hudson said in an email. "Nevertheless, it seems whether to close a school or not is a separate and more important matter than what is to be done with the personnel who are employed there."

Web posted on Thursday, May 20, 2010

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