News Story

East China school board selects new member in private, out of public view

Candidates were spirited out of emergency exits, parent says

The East China School District Board of Trustees may have violated the Open Meetings Act by discussing and ultimately selecting a candidate to fill a vacant seat in private. 

Seven candidates submitted applications to fill a vacated school board seat, according to local parent Shawn Treadaway. The school district emailed the applicants with instructions to go to a local elementary school on February 15, where they were met by an administrator. The arrival time of each candidate was staggered. 

Each candidate was led into an interview room and asked questions, then led to a second room to finish the interview.

The interviewers included school board members and administrators. However, the board members were separated between the two rooms. This meant the interviews did not constitute a quorum, which would necessitate a public meeting. 

A group of concerned parents submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for the interview questions and documents, but received a response that these documents did not exist. 

Candidates were also led out through an emergency exit, not the way they came in, Treadaway said.

“All interviews should have been held in public, unless the candidate explicitly asked for privacy,” Treadaway said. “Six of the candidates were local parents, concerned about transparency issues during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Treadaway said that after all the candidates left, both interview panels with all the board members met in the same room and voted for the candidate. 

Under the Open Meetings Act, round-robin sub-quorum meetings are illegal. This includes meetings where only deliberations occur, even when the final decision is made at a public meeting.

“The Open Meetings Act is designed to ensure that public bodies make decisions transparently. By making a decision in secret outside of an open meeting, government entities deprive the public of the ability to observe important policy deliberations and make their voices heard,” said Steve Delie, director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. “Open meetings are essential to allowing citizens to fully engage with their government, and enable them to hold their representatives accountable.” 

At the next official school board meeting, held February 28, candidate Libby Prill was already seated at the dais, with the board. An official trustee nomination and board vote took place in public, and Superintendent Suzanne Cybulla handed Prill a pre-made name plate.

Treadaway believes the candidate was officially sworn in prior to the meeting. A picture on the school board’s website posted February 29 showed Prill being sworn in, but there is daylight coming in through the windows, Treadaway noted. It was dark outside when the meeting began.

Treadaway reached out to board member Todd Distelrath to verify his suspicions.

Distelrath responded via text message:

“My understanding from the interview night was we would have a formal vote tonight. I voted for Lauren Martin and the rest for Libby. And then I was told Suzanne would be notifying everyone the following day or two. It seems there are several avenues that can be used to appoint. Another member tonight says he was simply sworn in, in Suzanne’s office.”

When reached by CapCon, Distelrath deferred comments to superintendent Cybulla and the board’s president, Jeanne Frank. 

Frank said the allegation that Prill was elected in violation of the Open Meetings Act is false.

“There was not a ‘secret meeting.’ The East China Board of Education follows all the requirements for open board meetings,” Frank said in an email to Michigan Capitol Confidential.

“Every one of the six other candidates that applied are staunch advocates for children, essentially dissenters, open-minded individuals with different views. They were not the type of people the school board wanted,” Treadaway said.

Prill is only filling a temporary position, as school board elections for a full term will occur in November.

Treadaway said he wants voters to be aware of the violation before electing new members.

“This is not about spite. It’s about communication, honesty, and accountability," Treadaway said. "These are our kids we’re talking about. For the last two years, we’ve pulled our daughters from the local district. We asked for transparency and communication during the pandemic about how and what schools were doing.” 

Treadaway said many emails from parents never received a response from the school board or the superintendent.

“School board members refused to acknowledge concerns, and it was basically like talking to a brick wall,” Treadaway said. “I want my girls back in school. I think public school is a useful thing, but we want community and partnership between the parents and the school board.”

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.