Oklahoma County DA says board members did not violate the Open Meetings Act

Tuesday, August 19th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Putnam City School Board members did not violate the Open Meetings Act when they huddled together before a high school graduation and left before the ceremony started.

Oklahoma County District Attorney Wes Lane said Tuesday that what the school board members did was inappropriate, but did not violate the law.

``I don't think it takes a rocket scientist to figure out what was going on,'' Lane said. ``There had to be some hurt feelings and bruised egos.''

Lane said his office investigated the complaint filed by members of the Putnam City Association of Classroom Teachers with Warr Acres police and found there were conflicting stories and each side seemed somewhat plausible.

``We spent a significant amount of time investigating this. This is not something people in my office take lightly,'' Lane said. ``Quite frankly this is something this office shouldn't be dealing with. You would hope people could settle their differences with some level of maturity.''

The criminal complaint stemmed from an incident at the May 16 graduation ceremony at Putnam City High School.

Four of the five members of the Putnam City Schools Board of Education walked out of ceremony where Principal Vernon Belcher was handing out diplomas to students.

Only school board president Julie Jenison stayed for the entire ceremony. Jenison said she met the other board members at a local coffee shop after the ceremony and but had limited conversation about Belcher.

Typically, a school board member gives students their diplomas. Graduating seniors had asked Belcher to hand out the diplomas. Belcher retired at the end of the school year after 33 years on the job.

A few days after the graduation, Belcher was suspended from his job for 10 days. He was later reinstated after students and teachers expressed support for Belcher.

Members of the Putnam City Association of Classroom Teachers' complaint said board members violated the Open Meetings Act.

According to the police report, association members allege a ``huddle of the four'' board members constituted a meeting before they walked out on the graduation.

It only takes three members of the five-member panel to constitute a quorum.

Association members also said the board discussed Belcher's suspension during an executive session at its May 19 meeting, according to the report.

The meeting agenda listed an evaluation of Superintendent Jim Capps but did not list disciplinary action being considered.

``We are glad the district attorney took the time to investigate this situation since we believe the school board should be held to the highest standards,'' said Jan Sands, the association's president.

``We have continued concern about Jenison joining the other board members at a coffee shop...since three members constitutes a meeting.''

Sue Sullivan, vice president of the Putnam City School Board of Education said Lane's decision allows board members to concentrate on educating children.

``I'm very thankful that the investigation is over,'' said Sullivan, a retired educator. ``Now we can focus on our No. 1 priority, which is providing the best possible education for the students of Putnam City.''

Sullivan has said board members did not collectively decide to leave the ceremony.

Sullivan declined to discuss the issue further, saying a personnel matter was involved.