The Switzerland County School Board’s meeting held on Monday, December 18th, got rather heated at times, as members discussed – or didn’t discuss – the ongoing situation with the future of the old school building on Seminary Street in Vevay; and the cost to the school corporation as the situation lingers on.
The tensions continued when the school board got to the portion of the agenda that allows public comments.
At that time, school board member Susan Jill Cord, attempted to step away from her seat and speak as a member of the public. School Board President Katie Collier, stopped Cord.
“May I ask what your public comments are concerning?” Collier asked.
“Indiana Landmarks,” Cord responded.
“Does it have to do with the old administration building?” Collier continued.
“Yes, ma’am,” Cord answered.
“Mrs. Cord, I’m going to have to not let you speak. It’s redundant. It’s not an issue at this point,” Collier said.
“This is not redundant at all,” Cord stated. “I just spoke to someone two weeks ago.”
“Technically I don’t have to let you speak, because you’re on the school board, sitting up here. You’re not a member of the public,” Collier broke in.
After another comment from the public, Cord asked for the opinion of School Board attorney Matt Hocker.
“Could I ask Mr. Hocker, is this appropriate that I not be allowed to speak during public comments?” Cord said.
“I didn’t know the issue was going to come up,” Hocker responded.
“There’s no issue, I just have information to share,” Cord said.
“It’s up to the board president to determine whether or not they (comments) become redundant,” Hocker said.
“I have no idea how she would know they’re redundant,” Cord responded. “I just spoke with a person, like two weeks ago, and we haven’t had a board meeting,”
“Mrs, Cord, the issues is that we have already voted to tear down the building,” Collier said. “It has been moved. It has been seconded. It has been voted on 6-1, and that’s what we’re moving forward with. I have been more than nice enough to let you speak in public comments on this topic, and now we are moving on. Until something new comes up with that…”
“This is a new issue,” Cord countered. “And this board agreed to rescind the motion to demolish the building if community support could be found.”
“That motion has never been made,” Collier said. “Right now the motion that has been made and has been moved for, and has been voted on 6-1 is to demolish the building, and that’s the way we are going.”
“That’s not how it was publicized,” Cord said.
“Mrs. Cord, if you would like to submit whatever you have to the board, I’m sure that they can distribute it to the other board members if it’s informational,” Hocker said.
“I would like to speak with the public, as well,” Cord said.
With that, Collier closed public comments.
Later in the meeting, the board came to a new business agenda item that involved attorney fees that the school board had been charged with regard to defending its position on three separate complaints that had been filed against the school corporation with the Indiana Public Access Counselor – two by Jill Cord and another by William Cord, Jill Cord’s husband.
In his findings of the first complain, which involved what Cord said was a topic discussed in an executive session that was not permitted under Indiana law, Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke Britt in his findings found some fault with the school board concerning the specifics of the allegations found in the complaint; but found that the public had not been harmed because of the meeting, so there was no penalty.
In the other two complaints, Britt found no evidence that the school board did not violate the Access to Public Records Act or the Open Door Law.
(Editor’s Note: for those wishing to read the findings from the Public Access Counselor, go to www.in.gov/pac/. Once there, click on ‘Advisory Opinions’ on the left side, then ‘Advisory Opinions 2017’. The scroll down to 17-FC-208 and 17-FC-160. At the time of this story, complaint 17-FC-205 was not on the PAC website advisory opinions listing.)
At Monday’s meeting, Superintendent Mike Jones reported to the school board that the corporation received three bills from the law firm of Church Churh Hittle+Antrim in Noblesville, Indiana, for the firm’s role in representing the school corporation in the three complaints. Jones said that the first bill was for $2,325; the second was for $1,500; and the third was for $1,425. He noted that the corporation’s insurance carrier that it would pay over the corporation’s $1,500 deductible per claim, so the insurance would pay $825 of the first claim; but would not pay on the other two because they fell below the deductible, so the corporation would owe a total of $4,425.
“What EMC (the insurance carrier) doesn’t cover out of the $5,250, would come out of the general fund?” board member Joe Bennett asked.
Corporation treasurer Wilma Rosenberger confirmed that once the corporation receives invoices after the insurance claim has been paid, the balance would come from the general fund.
“I think this is a complete travesty, to me,” board member Amy Combs said. “That we have to waste the school’s money. It makes me sick. The teachers are at risk for not getting raises, and we have to spend this money. It’s sad. I would like to point out that the school was found not to be in offense of anything that we were accused of. Matt (addressing attorney Hocker), is there anyway we can get this money back? Recoup any costs?”
“As the school would be the winner in this, my understanding is – and you can call the counsel that you have actually hired for this and talk directly to them and ask them whether they would advise going forward or not,” Hocker responded. “You would have to find basically that the points were frivolous or unfounded or meant to harass. The law on that is that is, the school would have to bring a lawsuit in court to bring that against the individual or individuals.”
“On the public access website, formal complaint number 160 that was filed by a board member; formal complaint number 205 that was filed by a spouse of a board member; and formal complaint number 208 that was filed additionally by a board member, in my opinion it’s very disappointing, and I can’t understand the rationale that a board member would file a public access complaint against the board on which that person serves, and the corporation that she represents. My opinion,” board member Tye Sullivan said.
“I’d like to address that,” Cord said. “What Mrs. Combs said was incorrect, there was a violation of the Open Door Law. It was instigated when an outside consultant was hired by Mr. Jones on June 5th. That was three hours that this board, and some administrators sat in this room. For 26 minutes, a third topic that was not advertised for discussion in the legal advertisement for that executive session was discussed. During that time, the outside consultant, basically brow beat me into thinking that I was being irrational by feeling that an old school, the old Vevay High School, should be saved and preserved; and that was the sole purpose of Mr. Halik’s, the consultant’s, reason for being in that executive session: to brow beat me into and to try and force me into group think – and anyone who knows me knows that I would never do that. Mr. Halik has been doing the same thing in the Madison Consolidated School District. I’ve been in communication with a board member there, as well.”
Cord stated that Hocker sat through the entire executive session; and that he allowed the Open Door Law violation to happen.
“He not only sat through the executive session, he also charged the school board and the taxpayers $700 for doing so,” Cord continued. “As per a printout that was provided to the board at the last board meeting.”
Cord also said that Hocker charged $2,143 for reading the complaints, reviewing them, and discussing them with outside counsel. She said that the amount didn’t include the $700 for the executive session.
“In my opinion, it was the school board attorney’s responsibility to prevent the open door violation,” Cord continued. “The subject of the first complaint, or other illegal acts from occurring in the first place, Otherwise, Why was he even in attendance at an executive session, during which the school board was supposed to be writing mission and vision statements?”
“The school board attorney was present during the entire time. He charged four billable hours at $175 per hour. This action just adds insult to injury. The injury became even worse when six school board members felt obligated to vote to hire an outside school attorney….”
“Which you voted no against, by the way,” Collier said, “When you were the one bringing the charges.”
“Mr. Jones and you should have answered the public access complaint,” Cord said.
“I would think that would have been a conflict of interest,” Combs said.
“It is a conflict of interest,” Collier said.
“Not at all,” Cord said.
“Are you throwing shade at how much money he’s had to spend, the school has had to spend?” Collier shot back.
“Yes, because none of it was necessary,” Cord said.
“That doesn’t distract from how much money we have to spend on this, and it needs to be made known to the public,” Collier said. “And the amount of time we have spent on this since May or June or whenever this began, is extremely outrageous. We as a board have not been able to do our jobs because this is what we have been dealing with since June, and as for the constituents that you always like to refer to. They would be outraged to know how much time, personnel wise, how much money has been spent on this issue that does not affect our students or our employees at all. So you can go over every single thing that you want to, it does not distract from what is in front of us and what we have been dealing with since June.”
“Can I finish, then, since I can go over everything I want to?” Cord responded.
“How long are we going to be here, Mrs. Cord?” Collier said.
“I have a lot to say, Mrs. Collier, because things are not right,” Cord said.
“Amen,” Combs replied. “Amen.”
“Mrs. Cord, you participated in that 26 minute conversation, and then turned around and filed a complaint against that very action. How can you justify that?” Sullivan said.
“How can Mr. Hocker sit there as our legal advisor and let it go on?” Cord said. “Could you answer that?”
“It’s laughable, if the public knew exactly what the content of that conversation was,” Sullivan said. “It is laughable. It is disappointing. It is disappointing as a former principal, a teacher, and a school board member that you would do something like that to this board and to the corporation.”
“I eight pages of the dialogue, the script that went on, and it is very…..” Cord began.
“Per your dictation,” Collier interrupted. “Not exactly what was taken.”
“Your notes,” Sullivan said.
“You folks had every opportunity to answer, but you turned it over to some outside person who knew nothing of our school system, our old building, or what had been transpired,” Cord said.
“Mr. Hocker cannot legally take that on, because he was named in the claim,” Collier said.
“Then why did he charge us $2,143 for dealing with that one complaint?” said Cord.
“Maybe the public should know how much money the school has been charged by Mr. Hocker for all of the dealings that we’ve had with you as a board member.” Collier said.
“Matt, I’ll pony up an hour from my pocket,” Bennett said. “I want to know that number. I’ll pony up an hour.”
“Let’s make that known to the public and to the taxpayers,” Collier said.
“I hope you do, I hope you do,” Cord said.
“You don’t want that,” Sullivan said. “You don’t want that to be public.”
“We’re doing you a favor, here,” Bennett said.
“You go right ahead,” Cord replied.
After more back and forth, all sides moved on to the other matters on the agenda; and the meeting was adjourned.