Meetings Complaint Filed Against Burlington Area School District
Complaint alleges school board illegally moved August meeting to undisclosed, private location
The Wisconsin Transparency Project, on behalf of local resident and taxpayer Adrianne Melby, has filed a verified Open Meetings Law Complaint against the Burlington Area School District alleging two different violations occurred on August 9, 2021. The complaint was filed with the District Attorney for Racine County.
Wisconsin’s Open Meetings Law (Wis. Stat. §§ 19.81-19.97) places strict requirements on all governmental bodies to ensure their meetings are open and accountable to the public. The law requires, among other things, that all meetings be properly noticed with the time, location, and intended subject matters of the meeting and that all meetings be held open to the public at all times unless a valid exception applies.
On August 9, the board was scheduled to vote on whether to require masks during the new school year. During the public comment period, every single speaker spoke passionately against a mask mandate. Unfortunately, a small number of audience members were disruptive, and the board cut public comment short. Board President Peter Turke then called the meeting into recess, telling the audience it would reconvene in the library.
When audience members traveled to the library, it was dark and locked. Police officers were stationed in the hallway, and they told people (falsely) that the board had left the building. In fact, the board had gathered in an undisclosed classroom to continue their meeting outside of the public’s view, and the police prevented the public from attending.
The verified complaint alleges that the board violated the Open Meetings Law in two ways. First, by moving the meeting from the noticed location (the auditorium) to another location (the undisclosed classroom), the board violated the requirement that notice of a meeting must specify its exact location. Second, by meeting in a secret room and refusing to permit the public to attend the rest of their meeting, the board violated the requirement that all meetings must be held open to all members of the public at all times.
Melby explained why she filed this complaint: “Parents and community members have been demonized for attending a school board meeting on August 9th, 2021 with the gravest of concerns for their children and grandchildren. The school district and the media have pointed fingers at parents for walking the hallways of the school and “hunting down” board members when in fact myself and others were just moving to the room the school board President had announced the meeting would reconvene in. The only ones who broke the law on August 9th were the school board members.”
“I sympathize with boards having to deal with disruptive audiences,” said Tom Kamenick, President & Founder of the Wisconsin Transparency Project. “They had several legal alternatives, such as removing disruptive members or cancelling the meeting altogether and rescheduling it. But the way they chose to deal with the problem violated the letter and spirit of the law.”
The Racine County District Attorney has 20 days to decide whether to bring a complaint seeking forfeitures of up to $300 against each of the board’s members. If the District Attorney fails to act, Melby has the right to bring that action on behalf of the state, which could also make the district liable for her attorney fees and costs.