The Barnum School Board has changed meeting locations to allow for public attendance and be in compliance with the Minnesota Open Meeting Law.
Barnum was previously holding School Board meetings with board members attending in person, while the public was required to attend virtually via Facebook livestream due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, an April 19 opinion by the Minnesota Department of Administration has deemed this meeting format to be in violation of the Open Meeting Law.
The opinion, issued by the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Administration, found the St. Louis County School Board to be in violation of state law when they were found to be conducting meetings in a format similar to that of Barnum.
“The School Board did not comply with the OML when a quorum of the public body held in-person meetings … while the public was limited to remote attendance,” the opinion read.
Following this opinion, new guidance was issued by the Minnesota School Board Association regarding how school boards conduct business during a pandemic.
The guidance states that school board meetings should either be held in person — without restrictions on public attendance — or held completely virtually.
According to Barnum Superintendent Mike McNulty, the decision to livestream meetings was made out of concern for public safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. He explained that the board room is a small space and does not allow for large groups of people to remain socially distanced.
After the livestream of the meeting ended, the videos would be uploaded to Barnum Public Schools' Facebook page, as well as its website. Meeting minutes were typically attached to agenda packets available to the public online.
“We were having public comments being sent in and read at the meetings, and we moved people in and out of the room if they spoke at a meeting, all to ensure the health and safety of people,” McNulty said in an email to the Pine Journal.
McNulty shared that he recently met with the Minnesota Department of Administration to discuss the new advisory opinion, guidance and larger alternatives for Barnum meeting spaces.
“The department acknowledged that (the statute) does not give clear guidance to districts on what to do if the board is in-person and the safety measures ... cannot be maintained,” he said. “Similarly, the advisory opinion does not address the health and safety issues surrounding social distancing, presumably because it was not asked to do so.”
McNulty said statutes regarding physical and virtual access to meetings has been the focus of many recent discussions because Minnesota is using them for the first time since they were created in 2007.
The Barnum School Board has since voted to move future meetings to the media center at the school and will be allowing public attendance at all meetings.
Meetings will continue to be available via livestream as well.
“The public bodies have been violating the law,” Barnum Township resident Mark Krampf said. “I think this is problematic."
Krampf explained that the public has not had equal access to all meetings during the pandemic, citing the lack of broadband internet available in Carlton County.
"Our school district was following the Minnesota School Board Association's recommendations during this pandemic," board Chair Beth Schatz said.
This story originally gave incorrect details about the Barnum School Board's violation of state laws. It was updated at 3:24 p.m. May 6. The Pine Journal regrets the error.