The Bulloch County Board of Education on Thursday effectively repealed its recently adopted rules intended to keep phones and similar electronic devices out of the hands of board members during all portions of meetings and to bar participation in meetings by phone.
Instead, the board will rely on state law, which allows participation by phone in the open portion of meetings up to twice a year, or more often with a doctor’s excuse, and in effect prohibits phones in closed sessions but not open ones.
“Since our last meeting I’ve done research with our legal team, and they’ve actually talked to other professionals, and I am going to apologize to you for not stopping the motion about the use of cell phones at the last meeting,” board Chairman Mike Sparks told fellow board members.
“I should have researched it beforehand,” he said. “I should have tabled it and found out what I have found out.”
Board members Maurice Hill and Steve Hein had made differing statements of apology after the board voted 6-2 to reprimand Hill for a remark he made a month earlier, during the April 26 meeting. So Spark’s apology for the way the cell phone prohibition had been handled at the May 10 meeting was Thursday evening’s third apology.
The device ban
At that previous meeting, Hein had made a motion, seconded by Dr. Stuart Tedders and approved 7-1 with Hill opposed, for board members to place their cell phones, i-Pads and similar devices in a container at the beginning of each meeting. As passed, the rule provided that each phone would be tagged so that a staff member could bring it to the board member if an emergency call was received.
“Because this is an open meeting, a public meeting, we found out that we cannot do that,” Sparks said Thursday. “But we can, as a board, because that’s the law because I read it, prohibit cell phones or electronic devices during executive session. So we’re going to have to overturn that policy that we adopted in the last meeting.”
During the May 10 meeting the board also approved, on a 6-2 vote with Hill and Glennera Martin opposed, to bar members from voting or participating in discussions by telephone.
Martin, then hospitalized recovering from a fall, participated in the April 26 meeting by phone. At that meeting Hill and Martin, the only African-American board members, made and seconded a motion to intervene in Superintendent Charles Wilson’s transfer of Langston Chapel Middle School Principal Dr. Evelyn B. Gamble-Hilton to be an assistant principal at Southeast Bulloch High School.
“Secondly, we also found out that conference calls, if you’re out of town with sickness or business, are legal,” Sparks said Thursday. “But once we go to executive sessions, conference calls are not allowed.”
By “executive session,” he meant portions of otherwise public meetings that can be closed for certain reasons. For example, the board most often goes into closed session to discuss personnel actions before returning to open session to vote.
But the Georgia Open Meetings Act also allows board members to participate by conference call in open-session discussion and votes. As Sparks and the board’s attorney, Susan Cox, went on to explain, each member is limited to participating by conference call to two meetings each year, or more if the member has a doctor’s excuse.
Following state law
Sparks’ motion, seconded by Tedders, was to “amend the board policies about the use of cell phones and regarding conference calls to only pertain to executive sessions.”
Hill, a past chairman, noted that proposed policy changes are usually read at one meeting as new business “and then researched” and voted on as old business at a second meeting. He asked Cox if the board should follow this process for the amendment.
“Because I’m concerned that what you inadvertently did conflicts with the Open Meetings Act, I feel that this is a situation – it is on the agenda as legal clarification of board norms – I think you can go ahead and vote on it tonight and fix it,” Cox said.
The motion passed 7-1, with Hill voting “nay.”
Cox explained further, saying her firm had polled Georgia School Boards Association attorneys and found there was no consensus on allowing board members to use their phones during open session.
One view was that anyone present could record an open meeting, “so why would you prevent cell phone usage by anyone?” she said. On the other hand, multiple attorneys had noted that courtrooms are open but that judges do ban cell phones from courtrooms. Some courts ban them from their buildings entirely.
“So it was not clear cut, but since it’s not clear cut one way or the other, the better thing to do is to not attempt to ban it,” Cox said.
In response to remarks from Hein that his motion had not been meant as an enforceable policy but as something members agreed to do “as a reasonable expectation in board norms.” Cox offered the terminology that it was “aspirational but not necessarily enforceable.” Turning phones off during meetings is “good manners” and asking people to do so is certainly appropriate, she said.
Cell phones are barred from closed sessions because the purpose is confidential discussion, she said after the meeting.
“Somebody could be sitting there with their phone on and be recording it or let somebody on the outside be overhearing it, and then that would breach the confidentiality, so you can restrict cell phone usage in there,” Cox said. “Nor can you allow someone to participate by phone that way.”
Cox, who attends meetings only when asked by the board, was out of town May 10 and said she was concerned about the conference-call prohibition, as soon as she heard about it, as in potential conflict with the Open Meetings Act.
As previously reported, Hill had consulted an attorney, Francys Johnson, who said May 21 that they would challenge the new rules as unlawful and seek modifications.
Johnson, who also represents Gamble-Hilton, said the policies were meant as retaliation against her supporters.
“It’s good that when you are wrong you can admit to the fact that you were wrong, and I’m glad the school board admitted that they were wrong in adopting two policies contrary to their protocol, which is to let policy be considered by the public, and these policies were not consistent with our law as relates to public meetings for attending those meetings telephonically,” Johnson said Thursday night.
“I think they’re being clear about what the law is now, and they revised the policies.”
The board allowed no time for comments from the public Thursday. Public participation is usually limited to the first meeting of each month.
But while the board was in closed session, Gamble-Hilton and more than a dozen of her supporters gathered at the front of the boardroom in continued protest of her transfer and reduction in rank.
Johnson made further comments, and Body of Christ Assembly Inc. Pastor Samuel Watkins spoke on behalf of the Concerned Clergy of Bulloch County.
“I believe that our main concern is that we want equality for our principals, for our faculty and staff and for our students,” Watkins said.
Johnson said supporters fully expect that Gamble-Hilton will be a principal in the school district at the beginning of the school year. He also continued to voice a demand for Wilson’s removal or resignation as superintendent.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.