Ethics Commission dismisses complaint against SSD

A complaint filed by parents of the Starkville School District with the Mississippi Ethics Commission has been dismissed.
The complaint, filed March 6, revolved around two separate incidents revolving around alleged violations of the state Open Meetings Act during school board discussions on what would become the SSD’s dress code policy.
Filing the complaints were parents Kathleen Olivieri, Carolyn Adams-Price, Sarah Coleman, Rosiland Ashford, Anastasia Elder, Sally Gray and Kate Fabel.
“First, the complainants allege an overflow crowd attended the board meeting of Feb. 2, 2010, and some in attendance were excluded from the meeting when a security officer closed the door to the meeting room,” according to Ethics Commission documents.
“Secondly, the complainants allege the board discussed a proposal outside of board meetings because there was little discussion of the motion when it passed, and the complainants imply one parent was dissuaded from commenting on the proposal at a board meeting.”
“The first violation was actually commented on by (board member) Bill Weeks during the Feb. 2 school board meeting,” Olivieri explained.
The Feb. 2 board meeting dealt with the first reading of the proposed school dress code. Due to the nature of the board meeting, a an overflow crowd community members attended the meeting; however, due to fire code restrictions, only 40 people are allowed in the board room. The remaining persons were made to sit in the hallway outside of the board room.
During the meeting, School Resource Officer Sammy Shumaker closed the door to the board room because the people in the hallway were creating so much noise, it was interfering with the board meeting, according to Commissions documents.
That is when Olivieri recorded board member Bill Weeks as saying: “We were probably in violation of the Mississippi Open Meetings Law when Officer Shumaker closed the door.  We should have made accommodations for the crowd,” Olivieri recounted of Weeks’ statement.
The Ethics Commission ruled that Shumaker informed the people in the hallways that their noise level had caused him to shut the door for what is reported as period of one minute, after which, he reopened the door, and was therefore not in violation of the open meetings regulation.
“The Open Meetings Act does require public bodies to take all reasonable means within their powers and resources to ensure all members of the public who attend are able to ‘see and hear everything that is going on’ at an open public meeting. However, the Open Meetings Act certainly does not override fire safety rules,” Commission documents state.
“The board acted reasonably and lawfully in excluding people from the meeting room once its maximum capacity was reached. The safety officer acted reasonably in closing the door long enough to quiet the crowd.”
“The board provided a sworn affidavit from Officer Sammy Shumaker to that effect,” Commission documents added.
Addressing the portion of the complaint regarding the allegation that one parent was dissuaded from commenting regards the Feb. 25 board meeting. Parent Simone Mackin was scheduled to speak to the board regarding uniform costs.
“In the meantime, the policy was redrafted so that it became a dress code rather than a mandatory uniform policy, thus obviating the necessity that the school district purchase uniforms for students who could not afford them. Because that was being changed in the policy and Ms. Mackin wanted to discuss possible cost to the school district, Ms. (Debbie) Scire (secretary to the superintendent) requested by e-mail that Ms. Mackin talk directly to the superintendent, Judy Couey, about costs since the superintendent might be able to answer her questions,” Commission documents stated.
“Ms. Mackin called Mrs. Couey and they talked. After that conversation, Ms. Scire e-mailed Ms. Mackin again, asking if she still wanted to address the board at the March 2 meeting, and Ms. Mackin replied by e-mail that she did not.”
Also with the second complaint, Olivieri and the other seven parents felt that minimal discussion took place during the board meeting about the dress code.
“The school board had heard from parents and students at four school board meetings and at an open forum.  Yet, we never witnessed the school board discussing the pros and cons of uniforms,” Olivieri explained of the March 2 meeting. “We never heard any deliberations among the school board.  We were never given one credible scenario in which uniforms would make our children safer.”
The Ethics Commission stated that the relative lack of discussion is understandable considering the number of meetings held previously regarding the district dress code.
“No evidence exists to support the conclusion that any deliberations occurred outside the properly noticed and recorded open meetings,” documents stated.
Ethic Commission Executive Director and Hearing Officer Tom Hood dismissed the complaint Oct. 9.