Embattled school board under investigation for claims it broke open meeting law

Members of the New Plymouth school board, as well as New Plymouth Superintendent Kevin Barker, far left, wait to go into closed-door session April 25, 2018, at a special meeting in the New Plymouth School district administrative office.
Members of the New Plymouth school board, as well as New Plymouth Superintendent Kevin Barker, far left, wait to go into closed-door session April 25, 2018, at a special meeting in the New Plymouth School district administrative office. clords@idahostatesman.com

The Gem County Sheriff's Office is investigating possible Idaho Open Meeting Law violations by the New Plymouth School Board, according to Gem County Prosecutor Erick Thomson.

Several employees and school district patrons are concerned that the school board and its superintendent, Kevin Barker, did not follow law when selecting its current law firm, Anderson, Julian and Hull, said Carrie Aguas, the school district's federal programs coordinator and a member of a group of concerned citizens.

Requests for comment from all five school board members, as well as Barker, were not returned.

But from other interviews, it's unclear what level of public approval the board had to give in order for the district to work with the law firm.

Scott Marotz, an attorney with Anderson, Julian and Hull, said law firms can be retained and employed by school districts without a formal contract or public discussion in an open meeting.

"Legal services do not have to be bid," Marotz said. "They just have to be selected (by the board or administrator). The firm wears a number of hats, and we provide services to many districts throughout the state."

Karen Echeverria, executive director of the Idaho School Boards Association, said how a school district retains or employs legal representation is largely determined by the policies of the district. Those vary from district to district.

New Plymouth School District policy published online appears to give much leeway on spending to the superintendent, "within the limits of the detailed annual budget."

A public records request filed with the school district shows that it has no formal contract with the law firm. According to the district's response to that public records request, Anderson, Julian and Hull's "services do not need to be approved by the Board before the Board employs them, so there are not any minutes or agenda that would have any information about this."

The Statesman also requested any records of district payments to the law firm. In its response, the district said it has paid about $41,300 to the firm, but denied "any detail of invoices since it is privileged."

The district did not cite, as required by law, the statutory authority for the denial, and it's unclear how any part of Idaho public records law would shield a school district's financial statements or invoices. But the monthly payments to the law firm turned out to be already available in the monthly expenses posted by the district on its website.

District records show the first payment made to Anderson, Julian and Hull came in April 2017, when Barker met with the law firm in what is labeled a "law seminar" for $275. At the school board's May 2017 meeting, minutes show Barker said the seminar was "very informative." No other agenda item or meeting minutes from then until now show any mention of employing the firm.

Aguas said that the school board, with the help of the law firm and under the direction of Barker, began revising in late 2017 a new insubordination policy and a new policy for staff grievances. A new policy for staff grievances was passed in a special meeting of the board after an executive session on Sept. 27, 2017, while the new insubordination policy was passed at its regular meeting Nov. 13, 2017, after an executive session.

The new policies made some employees fear for their ability to come forward with concerns regarding the leadership of the district because they thought they would be punished or lose their jobs, Aguas said. About a dozen employees interviewed by the Statesman over the past six months have echoed those concerns.

"All year I've been thinking about this since it happened, because I didn't understand why we had changed from an employee-friendly attorney firm to this firm that was part of changing our policies," Aguas said. "It just didn't seem to be in line with our tone of business in the district."

Controversy regarding Barker's leadership style divided the town of New Plymouth for months. In April, it led to his taking of a $400,000 buyout of his contract. Idaho Education News reported that an entity associated local businessman Scott Moscrip was the source of the buyout.

Many Idaho school districts use Anderson, Julian and Hull to represent them in various legal matters, Echeverria said. Through a program financially supported by the Idaho School Boards Association, the association provides four hours of legal services per year through the firm to each school district in Idaho.

The concerned residents initially contacted the Payette County Sheriff's Office and Payette County Prosecutor's Office, which cited a conflict of interest and asked to be recused from the investigation, Thomson said. The investigation is still in its preliminary stages, and Thomson has not received a report on the claims.

"It's an open-ended complaint, so we're trying to figure out if it's a single issue or a widespread thing," Thomson said.