MONROE — A Monroe School Board member’s messages on a private Facebook chat has sparked outcry that the district could be in legal hot water.
Screenshots show that Molly Barnes asked members of the Sky Valley Conservative Women Facebook group for their thoughts on superintendent candidates during an executive session on Jan. 26. At least one parent alleges the move violated the open public meetings act.
“Director Barnes broke the Open Public Meetings Act, … effectively inviting just a small handful of a targeted demographic to offer input that legally should have been public comment/record,” Melanie Lockhart wrote in public Facebook post Jan. 29. “She opened up the board’s executive session to a select few.”
Whether Barnes’ actions were illegal remained unclear. The Washington Coalition for Open Government, a leading agency for government transparency and public meeting laws, said Barnes “more likely broke that school district’s own ethics and confidentiality rules than the state Open Public Meetings Act, which is silent on this issue.”
But the scenario is “a new one for us,” with factors unique to the age of cell phones, internet access and social media, WashCOG posted on Twitter.
“The incident raises an issue we were going to have to confront sooner or later anyway,” WashCOG tweeted.
Barnes did not respond to requests for comment.
‘Targeted input from a targeted group’
The school board held a closed-door meeting from about 5:10 to 10:45 p.m. Jan. 26 to discuss three candidates for superintendent, as permitted by state law. During that meeting, board members planned to review community comments that were collected and submitted through an online form open to the public.
Screenshots of the message thread show Barnes also gathered responses in a private group chat associated with the Sky Valley group. The chat included district employees and parents, Lockhart said.
“Thanks for all the feedback! I read it all,” Barnes wrote at 8:29 p.m.
A minute later, she added: “Tell me your top pick.”
Most of the people participating in the chat showed support for Shawn Woodward. When the board reconvened in public to officially select a candidate, Barnes made a motion to pick Woodward. That motion passed 4-0.
Lockhart, a parent of two children in Monroe’s elementary schools, learned about the messages on Jan. 27. She said she is a member of the Facebook group and saw that a post about the superintendent candidates included a button for a chat on the topic. When she reviewed the discussion, she found Barnes’ messages asking for “targeted input from a targeted group of people,” Lockhart told The Daily Herald.
“As somebody who has worked in journalism and is very passionate about transparency and public involvement in government, I find it concerning that any board member, any elected official, would feel it was OK and appropriate to reach out to anybody in that capacity (during executive session),” Lockhart said.
On Saturday, Lockhart notified School Board President Jennifer Bumpus about her concerns. She also posted publicly on Facebook to alert other parents, noting that she’s been in contact with a lawyer.
That same day, the chat “appears to have been deleted,” Lockhart said.
‘Precarious legal position’
In a prepared statement sent out by the district, School Board President Jennifer Bumpus said the board is “taking the necessary steps to determine if there were any OPMA violations.”
In an email to The Herald, Bumpus clarified that the district will consult an attorney on the matter. Other board members did not know Barnes was seeking opinions in the group chat, Bumpus wrote.
Bumpus confirmed the board discussed the anonymous information submitted through the official online form.
Executive sessions allow public boards to meet privately to discuss sensitive matters. State law outlines several reasons a board may meet behind closed doors, including discussing applicants for public employment, like a superintendent.
That law, though, does not expressly outline whether board members can seek outside opinions during the private session.
In comments on Lockhart’s posts, some community members asked Barnes to resign from her position.
“Director Bumpus has worked so hard to establish integrity and rebuild trust and the progress she has made is shattered by Director Barnes’ actions,” Melanie Ryan, a parent and the president of Monroe Equity Community wrote in a Facebook comment. “Not only, does this put the district in a precarious legal position, but it taints the entire superintendent selection.”
Lockhart said she is most concerned that a board member would “solicit input” from a small, private group that could have influenced the board’s final decision — especially when that group was not open to all members of the public.
“I don’t want to go the legal route. I let President Bumpus know that. That is not my immediate desire,” Lockhart said. “At this point, I’m kind of waiting to see what the district’s response is.”
This story has been updated to include information from the Washington Coalition for Open Government.
Mallory Gruben is a Report for America corps member who writes about education for The Daily Herald.
Mallory Gruben: 425-339-3035; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @MalloryGruben.
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