A Southeast Missourian reporter was barred Tuesday from a Cape Girardeau School District budget task force meeting, the latest chapter in a dispute over the public's right to know about a process that eventually will affect district students, parents and taxpayers.
After receiving a letter from Missouri Press Association attorney Jean Maneke insisting that the district is in violation of Missouri's open meetings law, superintendent Mark Bowles maintained his stance that reporters should be turned away from attending and asked the reporter to leave. Bowles also said some task force members "may be limited in what they could tell" the media.
The task force, appointed by Bowles in October and made up of 64 school employees and 45 community members, has been asked to make recommendations for cutting $2.2 million from the district's $35 million budget.
District resident and businessman Robin Cole isn't on the task force, but Bowles permitted him into task force subcommittee meetings Tuesday. Cole said he volunteered for the task force earlier but wasn't selected.
In the groups he observed, members discussed closing Franklin Elementary School at a savings of $1.1 million, offering early retirement incentives, cutting dental insurance, raising class sizes, reducing the number of days in the school year and charging for parking and extracurricular activities, Cole said.
"I am certain the public must have confidence in a process where such urgent decisions are being made, but without an open process, how can the public have confidence?" he said.
The Southeast Missourian was allowed to attend an organizational meeting of the task force Oct. 27. However, on Monday, Bowles called the Southeast Missourian to say district attorney Joe Russell confirmed his opinion that media could be barred from task force meetings.
In the same phone call, Bowles said he understood that budget cutting initially was supposed to be a public process, but he wanted to create a "confidential environment" for those serving on the task force and felt media presence would inhibit their work.
The task force began a two-week series of meetings Nov. 3 to decide what expenditures could be eliminated to save money. Their final meeting is scheduled for Thursday night. Bowles will take their recommendations to the school board at their December meeting.
District attorney's view
The reason district attorney Joe Russell said he gave Bowles for not allowing media into the meetings revolves around the Sunshine Law's definition of a public body.
The law requires that any meeting of a public body be open to the public with the exception of only four topics: legal actions; leasing, purchase or sale of real estate; personnel matters; and probation, expulsion or graduation of identifiable students.
Russell claims the task force isn't a public body.
"The group you're talking about was appointed by the superintendent, not the school board, and will not be reporting to the school board. Consequently, I don't think they're a public body," Russell said Tuesday.
But Maneke, a Missouri Sunshine Law expert based in Kansas City, cited Section 610.010 of the state statute: "A public governmental body includes any administrative or governmental entity created by ... order ... of any political subdivision or district."
Early in the school board's existence, it authorized itself to hire a superintendent, she said.
"I believe the superintendent is clearly a governmental body himself, and the fact that he has created this task force means it's subject to the Sunshine Law," Maneke said.
Her letter was faxed to both Bowles and the school district's attorney before Tuesday's task force meeting. It was hand delivered by a Southeast Missourian reporter to Bowles, also before the meeting.
Bowles did not read the letter at that time but said he would turn it over to Russell today.
335-6611, extension 128On the force
The following is a list of members of the Cape Girardeau budget task force. A * denotes the member is a school employee:
Mark Bowles *
Ruth Ann Orr*