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DAVENPORT, Iowa (KWQC) – The Bettendorf Community School Districts Board of Education approved an agreement to settle a
lawsuit that challenged the legality of a board gathering held in May 2022.
The school board voted recently to accept the out-of-court settlement that was negotiated by its attorneys and lawyers representing five plaintiffs. The lawsuit was filed in the summer of 2022 by the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization; the Quad City Times, and television stations KWQC, WQAD and WHBF.
As part of the settlement, the school board acknowledged the gathering on May 25, 2022, did not comply with the requirements of Iowas public meetings law. The school board also promised that in the future, meetings dealing with school policies and procedures will be conducted in compliance with the public meetings law when a majority of school board members are present.
The agreement also requires the school district to reimburse the plaintiffs $6,500 for their attorney fees.
The lawsuit came after about 300 Bettendorf school district parents met with Superintendent Michelle Morse and all but one of the members of the Bettendorf school board. During the meeting, parents expressed their concerns about rowdy behavior and harassment by some students at Bettendorf Middle School that had injured other students in hallways and restrooms.
Quad Cities journalists were blocked from attending the Bettendorf gathering, including KWQCs reporter. Parents at the meeting were told they could not record the session for other people to watch later.
Iowas 50-year-old public meetings law requires that gatherings, both formal and informal, of a majority of members of a government board to deliberate or act on any matter within the scope of the boards policy-making duties must be open to the public, including journalists. The law also allows anyone at such gatherings to photograph or record the sessions.
As part of the negotiated settlement agreement the school board approved, the Iowa FOI Council and the media companies will dismiss their Scott County District Court lawsuit.
Attorneys for the Bettendorf school board had insisted before negotiations began that the gathering last year was not an official meeting of the school board because the six members present merely listened and did not discuss the concerns and criticisms the parents voiced.
But the media coalition said in a letter to Superintendent Morse and board president Rebecca Eastman on June 3, 2022, It would stretch believability to think that spending a couple of hours listening to the concerns of parents about the behavior of some Bettendorf Middle School students does not fall within the meaning of deliberations on matters clearly within the scope of the Board of Educations policy-making duties.
Although it has taken nine months, we are grateful the Bettendorf school board and the districts administrators finally have faced up to the regrettable reality that the board acted in violation of both the letter, and the spirit, of Iowas open meetings law last year when school officials barred journalists and some interested citizens from attending a school forum.
Several hundred parents were at the forum, voicing their concerns about the school districts response to incidents of student violence at Bettendorf Middle School. But more citizens, and journalists, were not allowed in the meeting. And school officials failed to provide the required advance notice of the school boards gathering.
There is no greater obligation of a school district these days than ensuring students have a safe environment in which to learn. But the Bettendorf school board and school administrators let the public down by not properly conducting the school boards meeting on May 25, 2022 in compliance with Iowa law.
Our lawsuit would have been unnecessary had the Bettendorf superintendent and the president of the Bettendorf school board simply responded to our letter in which my journalist colleagues and I expressed our concerns about the decision to block journalists from attending that meeting. Officials misguided interpretation of the law has ended up indirectly costing the taxpayers of the Bettendorf district $6,500 to reimburse our legal expenses. The taxpayers also are on the hook for thousands more the district has paid its own lawyers to defend this indefensible closed-door meeting.
No government entity can earn the trust, respect, and confidence of the people it serves when government officials try to prevent the public from attending a meeting like the one held in May 2022.
Randy Evans, Iowa Freedom of Information Council executive director
The full settlement agreement is here:
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