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West De Pere school board limits remote attendance

By Lee Reinsch

DE PERE – The West De Pere school board wants everyone at the table.

The board voted 4-1 to limit remote meeting attendance by its members to four per district fiscal year.

The board meets monthly for its regular meetings.

Before this, the board had no policy on remote attendance.

The sole nay voter, Tom Van De Hei, participates in meetings by speaker phone when he’s working out of town.

Board President Jenni Fuss said the move is in response to the Wisconsin Association of School Boards asking the board to set a policy on remote attendance.

For guidance, the board looked into other districts’ policies on remote, or virtual, attendance and found that policies vary, although most allow board members to attend up to two meetings virtually.

Some don’t allow virtual attendees to make a motion, second a motion, or vote. Others don’t allow remote attendance for closed sessions or special meetings.

“In some districts, virtual attendance isn’t allowed at all,” Fuss said.

Van De Hei, who has served on the school board for 10 years, worked locally until 18 months ago when he started a new job in electrical project management, which requires extensive travel.

Sometimes that can mean three weeks or a month living out of a suitcase across the country.

So far this year, he’s been out of town more than 180 days, spending just a few days home at a time.

The unpredictable nature of the work makes it hard to know when he’ll be able to attend a board meeting in person.

“I could think I’m going home on Friday, but then something could go wrong, and I have to stay until it’s fixed,” Van De Hei said.

Another board member works different shifts locally, sometimes at night when the board meets.

The board has scheduled some meetings around that board member’s availability.

“He can’t call from work, whereas I can,” Van De Hei said.

For that reason, he said, being able to participate remotely without restrictions has been helpful.

WASB leaves it up to each individual school board to decide whether to allow virtual attendance, and it doesn’t have an official policy around it other than to say that districts allowing remote attendance should have a policy in place and meetings need to be accessible to the public.

Despite improvements in technology over the last 16 years, WASB hasn’t seriously discussed remote meeting participation since 2003, according to WASB’s legal counsel in the WASB official publication, Wisconsin School News.

WASB’s delegate assembly attempted to get the legal right to make remote school board attendance, including voting remotely, a more common option.

The effort failed.

Law firm Boardman & Clark, WASB’s legal counsel, wrote there’s no law that bars remote attendance.

“We interpret the statutes and other legal authority governing board meetings as requiring a quorum of board members to be physically present at the place of the meeting, but not prohibiting other members from remotely participating.” (Michael J. Julka and Steven C. Zach, Boardman & Clark LLP, Legal Comment column, October 2018 issue of Wisconsin School News)

WASB’s legal counsel said nothing about remote attendance precludes voting, although members can’t vote via email, and a roll call vote should be taken if it’s difficult to identify the remote attendee’s voice.

Those participating remotely should be provided documents, videos, or other visual elements far enough in advance that they can see them during the meeting, the counsel suggested.

Speaking last week from Georgia, Van De Hei said he’s not happy about the action the board took but will try to deal with it as best he can while trying to earn a living.

“It is what it is,” he said.

Remote attendance policy breakdown

The West De Pere school board’s new policy on remote meeting attendance (defined as participation via teleconference or video conference) states that board members can attend meetings remotely four times per fiscal year of the district as long as:

• They can’t be there in person due to illness or disability (their own or that of a family member), work or school district business, or another issue approved by the board president; and

• They notify the president at least one day in advance;

• There is a quorum (at least three of the five members) physically present;

• The board members present can hear the remote attendee clearly;

• The audience can hear the remote attendee clearly;

• The remote attendee can hear the board and any members of the public clearly.

The new West De Pere School Board policy also states that:

• If the connection between the attendee and the board is lost, that’s the end of the topic for the remote attendee. The remote attendee can’t participate in the topic that was being discussed, nor can they vote on that topic.

• If the connection is restored, the remote attendee may “rejoin discussion and act on subsequent action items.”

• A request for remote attendance may be denied if the meeting or a portion of the meeting will be devoted to an evidentiary, due process, or quasi-judicial hearing before the board.

It’s the board’s first stab at a policy about remote attendance. The original draft limited remote attendances to two per district fiscal year, but the board voted to increase it to four.

“Our Board understands the need to balance our responsibilities in the district while meeting the demands of our careers,” Board President Jenni Fuss said in an email. “That said, we support virtual participation. It’s worked well for us.”

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