By ELENA DURNBAUGH
The International Academy Joint Steering Committee was unable to pass a proposed resolution stating that it would conduct itself according to the Michigan Open Meetings Act and the Freedom of Information Act because it lacked a quorum at its June 3 meeting.
That same day, the Michigan State First Amendment Law Clinic filed a complaint with the Michigan Attorney General’s Office on behalf of Oakland County community members against the IA, the Joint Steering Committee, IA principal Lynne Gibson, and Bloomfield Hills School District Superintendent Robert Glass for violations of the Michigan Open Meetings Act. Violations included holding closed meetings, not posting meeting minutes, and making decisions without a quorum present.
The Joint Steering Committee is the governing body for the IA, a public magnet school, which has campuses in the Bloomfield Hills, Troy, and Huron Valley School Districts. Over 1,500 students from 13 consortium districts in southeast Michigan attend the IA, which is consistently ranked as one of the best public high schools in the country.
The June 3 meeting was the second one held by the Joint Steering Committee since the meetings were made open to the public earlier this year. Only six members were present.
“We went ahead and took care of business acknowledging the fact we weren’t going to be able to vote on anything, but we at least let the public know what the business we intended on taking care of, as well as we offered opportunity for public input,” Troy School District Superintendent Richard Machesky said. “To suggest that there’s an ongoing problem having a quorum, I think would be a bit misleading, since this was the first meeting that we didn’t have a quorum.”
History of OMA violations
In December 2018, the Michigan State University First Amendment Law Clinic notified the Joint Steering Committee, IA principal Lynne Gibson, Glass, and members of the IA consortium that the committee was in violation of the Michigan Open Meetings Act.
“They have a consortium agreement that is the governing document for this public school. It is a public school under state law,” Director of the Michigan State University First Amendment Law Clinic Nancy Costello said. “They are subject to the Open Meetings Act.”
The letter sent in December was the second time the law clinic informed the Joint Steering Committee that it was operating in violation of Michigan law. The clinic first contacted the IA about open meetings act violations five years ago.
In 2014, the clinic reached out to the IA and the Joint Steering Committee about the Open Meetings Act after a client said she was unable to attend meetings. The complaint filed with the Attorney General said that after exchanging emails with the IA’s attorney Christine Barnett, clinic representatives thought that the school was remedying the issues. In the summer of 2018, Costello learned the meetings had never been opened, but that the client did not press the matter further because, at the time, she was still a student at the IA Okma Campus and feared repercussions.
In fall 2018, after the client graduated, the clinic once again began investigating potential Open Meetings Act violations. Clinic representatives made several attempts to get information about the meetings, and even directly inquired if they were public. Finally, the clinic was informed that the next meeting would be held on December 4, 2018. Upon arrival, clinic representatives and community members were not allowed entry. According to the complaint filed with the Attorney General, a quorum was not present at that meeting. The law clinic once again contacted the IA, the Joint Steering Committee, and members of the consortium district in December 2018 to inform them of the Open Meetings Act violations.
Following its notice, the clinic received a response on behalf of the IA from the Bloomfield Hills’ legal counsel, attorney Robert Lusk.
“We are not in a position to comment on the validity or context of these assertions. Moreover, given the IA Joint Steering Committee’s commitment to comply with the OMA going forward, we do not believe such comment is necessary or appropriate,” Lusk said in the letter.
Since then, the Joint Steering Committee has taken steps to comply with the Open Meetings Act, including posting meeting times and locations online and publishing its previous minutes on the IA website. Minutes from Joint Steering Committee meetings held this year have been posted online in draft form, pending their approval by a quorum.
Despite these actions, minutes are missing from the years 2007-2009, and posted meeting minutes lack supporting documents, like budgets, policies, and contracts.
An “intentional, concerted effort”
Legal bills and meeting minutes obtained by the Michigan State First Amendment Law Clinic through FOIA appear to show that after being contacted by the law clinic in 2014 and 2018, the IA attempted to revise the language of the consortium agreement to change the Joint Steering Committee from a governing body into an advisory body. This revision would have allowed the committee to continue to hold closed meetings.
“It meant that they were trying to change the consortium agreement to be in line with what their illegal practices were. You can’t do that,” Costello said.
According to the consortium agreement, the Joint Steering Committee has the power to approve the IA budget, make hiring and firing decisions regarding top administrators, make curriculum decisions, and sign and execute contracts.
Proposed changes to the consortium agreement in February 2015 and October 2018 would have modified the function of the committee from a governing body to an advisory body.
This contradicts what Glass told student journalist Asher Leukhardt, who writes for the Seaholm High School Highlander.
“We want to be very clear on the point that we are not intending to change the language to make it less of a governance body,” Glass said. “The point was to adjust the document to reflect what we really have always done since the beginning of it.”
In the interview, Glass said that any revision to the consortium agreement would have to provide a governance board because the Joint Steering Committee was clearly set up as a governance body. He also said that Lusk provided the district with different options for addressing the Open Meetings Act issues, but they were ultimately rejected.
“He gave us some different options, different ways to make them compliant,” Glass told the Highlander in a recording of the interview obtained by the Gazette. “Like, you could change the language, but you’d probably have to create some other kind of governance board.”
Joint Steering Committee meeting minutes from October 2, 2018, show that Gibson told the Joint Steering Committee that she wanted to review the agreement to update “outdated verbiage.”
“They stripped it of the power to make the decisions, and they made it into a body that could only recommend what those decisions could be,” Costello said.
These changes were never adopted, but a revised consortium agreement was sent out to school districts last fall and approved by the Lake Orion School District, according to Costello.
Legal bills show that between fall 2014 and fall 2018, the Lusk Albertson and Thrun law firms spent approximately 30 hours on Open Meetings Act related research involving the IA. In October 2018, the Lusk Albertson law firm spoke with the Bloomfield Hills Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources and Labor Relations Kelly Bohl about proposed changes to the consortium agreement. According to legal bill notations, Glass also spoke to attorneys about the IA and Open Meetings Act issues as late as December of last year.
Glass told the Highlander that as soon as legal counsel told him that Joint Steering Committee meetings should be open, that’s what the consortium decided to do.
“As soon as I heard that from our school district attorney, I brought that to the 13 districts and they all agreed,” Glass said.
The timing is important, according to Costello.
“This is what it appears has happened here: That there was an intentional, concerted effort to continue the illegal practices of keeping those meetings closed,” she said.
More of the same
At the June 3 meeting, Lusk informed the Joint Steering Committee of the complaint filed by the law clinic.
“Having seen the proposed resolution, which will commit us to following the OMA from this point forward and not waiting for that process to begin for the follow up after the consortium agreement to be in place, to the extent the Attorney General has any concern about what we’re doing, I think that would go a long way toward ameliorating those issues,” Lusk said.
Some members of the Joint Steering Committee seemed to agree.
“From my perspective, it’s a moot point,” said Machesky. “Similar to the last Joint Steering Committee meeting, we maintained that meeting as an open meeting, and we indicated at the time we intend on doing so moving forward… All I know is the intent of the Joint Steering Committee, the individuals on the Joint Steering Committee, moving forward is to conduct business in compliance with the Open Meetings Act.”
Costello said the lack of action at the meeting was why a change had to be made.
“Governing bodies are known to take resolutions, but resolutions have no legal impact. All it says is that we agree about this, but it makes no changes. It has no legal impact to rectify the situation, so it means nothing,” she said. “Something has to be done. They’ve had a lot of time and there’s been a lot of discussions. Nothing’s been done, even though this has been going on for years and years. It’s time. And if they aren’t going to do it, they might need state oversight to make sure that it’s done.”
At the meeting, Lusk presented a review of the current consortium agreement completed by a subcommittee of the Joint Steering Committee with his assistance.
The review included suggestions and questions for the Joint Steering Committee moving forward, like lowering the total number of board members so that it would be easier to achieve a quorum.
According to Machesky, the subcommittee included himself, Glass, Huron Valley Schools superintendent Paul Salah, and Birmingham Public Schools superintendent Mark Dziaktczak. Machesky said that Lusk performed the majority of the review.
“At the last meeting in Troy, we had indicated that we would try to identify a small group of individuals that would come together and begin looking at the current consortium agreement, and we would begin working toward adjusting those as we saw fit. At that time, Dr. Glass indicated that it would be appropriate for Mr. Lusk to participate in that process,” Machesky said.
No decisions were made at the meeting regarding anything Lusk brought forward on behalf of the subcommittee.
Machesky said that moving forward, the Joint Steering Committee would be working to “adjust the consortium agreement to be in line with current practice.”
“I see the Joint Steering Committee acting as it was initially intended to act, which is an advisory board to the consortium, and helping to provide direction to the International Academy,” he said. “It will be consistent with what the consortium agreement expects it to be, which has been, it’s intended to be an advisory group to the consortium.”
Conflict of interest?
Last week, the Bloomfield Hills Board of Education hired the law firm of former Attorney General Mike Cox to address the complaint filed with the Attorney General’s Office.
The Mike Cox Law firm represented Bert Okma in a case last fall, in which a former employee sued Okma and China IA, LLC for breach of contract. The case was related to the failed IA sister school in China. Okma is the former principal of the IA and is married to Gibson, the current principal. The firm also sent a cease and desist letter to the Bloomfield Hills Board of Education in February requesting that the board prevent the former employee from speaking against Gibson and Okma at public meetings.
The decision to hire Cox was made at a board study session last Thursday, and the measure passed 5-1. Board Secretary Lisa Efros voted against it and Trustee Jennifer Cook abstained.
Efros spoke to the Gazette about her decision, but she made it clear that she was not speaking on behalf of the board and that she was only giving her opinion as an individual member of the Board of Education.
According to Efros, the vote was a last minute addition to the agenda. She said that she missed a call from Glass sometime in the hour before the meeting, and it was her understanding that he had contacted the other board members to inform them of the add-on around the same time.
Efros said that she voted against hiring Cox because she felt there was a conflict of interest.
“The matter that he’s going to be representing the district, our superintendent, and an employee of our district have to do with a violation of the Open Meetings Act, and my opinion was that we had a conflict of interest because he has represented an individual and sent to the board a cease and desist letter regarding an open meetings act violation,” she said.
Even if there was no conflict of interest, Efros said that she thought the decision merited more discussion.
“I think just doing our due diligence, we should explore whether there might be a conflict before we would approve something like that,” she said.
June 6 was Glass’ last Board of Education meeting as the superintendent of Bloomfield Hills Schools. He will be leaving the district and relocating to New York in July.
According to a spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office, no investigation into the complaint filed by the Michigan State First Amendment Law Clinic has been started.
The next Joint Steering Committee meeting has not been scheduled yet, according to the IA website.