At the Milton School Board meeting on Monday, Attorney Shana Lewis, a partner with Strang, Patteson, Renning, Lewis and Lacy, gave an hour-long presentation on board member roles and responsibilities.
At the end of her presentation, Superintendent Rich Dahman asked, “If an individual board member is taking action that puts the district at risk of liability, what’s the responsibility of the board as a whole and/or the district administrator?”
“It’s a complicated question,” said Lewis, who has represented the Milton School District for about 17 years and represents about 47 school districts in the state.
First, she said, “the expectation is that school board members are minimizing the risk of liability for the district itself.”
Of course, she said there gray areas.
“There are times when the district is going to make a decision where liability or the risk of liability is something we cannot avoid,” Lewis said. “There are times when people are on two sides of an issue and the district has to take action on one side or the other, and there is always the potential that someone is going to sue the district under some kind of argument.”
In the event a school board member is acting in “kind of a rogue capacity” and the school board member is violating a policy or law and disregarding direction of the administration, school board president or legal counsel, Lewis said, “technically speaking that school board member is then on his or her own.”
Lewis said an individual could be personally liable under the open meetings law, or personally liable for defamation or any other kind of claim that would be brought against him.
“Typically, we try to warn board members before they go down that path,” she said.
“In the event that a school board member just simply disregards and the rest of the school board is unhappy with both the potential liability, as well as, just the public relations aspect of whatever it is that school board member did or did not do, sometimes a school board will censure a school board member.”
According to Lewis, censuring is essentially publicly disavowing what the school board member did or did not do, and indicating that board member does not speak on behalf of the rest of the board.
In some cases, she said complaints can be filed against the school board member with the ethics commission, elections commission or the district attorney. In extreme situations, she said recall elections are pursued, as well as removal by a judge.
“The school board itself does not have the authority to remove a school board member, to financially penalize a school board member, or to refuse to allow a school board member to be present in a meeting or to participate in a meeting,” she said.