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Does school retreat violate Sunshine Law?

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By The Staff

By DAMON LAWRENCE

rclawrence@bellsouth.net

The Roane County Board of Education has scheduled a retreat at the Oak Tree Lodge in Sevierville Friday and Saturday to discuss its building plan.

The school system did not disseminate notice of the taxpayer-funded retreat until Wednesday.

Public notice of such outings is required by the Tennessee Sunshine Law. According to Director of Schools Toni McGriff, that requirement was met.

“All we have to do is give 24 hours’ notice,” McGriff said.

Tennessee law says differently. Regarding notice of special meetings, Part B of Tennessee Code Annotated 8-44-103 reads as follows: “Any such governmental body which holds a meeting not previously scheduled by statute, ordinance, or resolution, or for which notice is not already pro-vided by law, shall give adequate public notice of such meeting.”

When asked why no notice was given before Wednesday, McGriff said she wasn’t aware that one had not been sent out. It was simply an oversight on part of the school system, she said.

“We don’t have to give any certain amount of time or anything, so since you’ve brought it to our attention we’ll certainly make sure that you get notice,” McGriff said.

Shortly after making that statement, a notice about the retreat was faxed to the Roane County News.

That fails to meet the definition of adequate public notice, according to attorney David Hollow, an expert on Tennessee Sunshine Law.

“Adequate notice is generally defined as publication in a newspaper, not a phone call from a reporter for a newspaper, then you fax something over and that’s it,” said Hollow, who serves as a consultant for the Tennessee Press Association.

“If they go ahead and meet, they’re in violation of the sunshine act, in my opinion,” he added.

Notice of meetings where public business is being discussed is one of the fundamental principles of open government.

The Roane County Commission recently postponed a discussion on filling a vacancy on the In-dustrial Development Board because it wasn’t properly noticed.

McGriff briefly mentioned the need for a retreat to discuss the building plan at the January school board meeting.

However, no date was ever set at that meeting, and no discussion or vote was taken on the matter, even though the trip includes the use of public money.

“That just does not sound like timely notice to me,” Hollow said. “They really haven’t given anybody notice. All they’ve done is responded to a phone call.”

The retreat is scheduled to start at 1 p.m. on Friday and 8 a.m. on Saturday.

Longtime school board member Mike “Brillo” Miller said retreats are common.

“They always have one retreat a year,” Miller said. “They’ve always done it that way.”

Sevierville is in Sevier County. Why there, instead of somewhere in Roane County?

“Simply because you can get away from phones, cell phones, interruptions and such,” McGriff said.

The sole purpose of the scheduled retreat is to discuss the building needs of the school system, according to McGriff.

No action will be taken, she said.

The school system presented a $47 million building proposal to the county commission last year.

The purpose of the plan is to fix the ailments, such as overcrowding and decaying facilities, facing the school system.