Lawyer: Media should have been allowed in school meeting

Kent County

WYOMING, Mich. (WOOD) — Godfrey-Lee Public Schools hosted a meeting Monday night to inform the community about the progress on repairs to the roof of Lee Middle and High School, which collapsed twice in June. 

But when 24 Hour News 8’s Leon Hendrix wanted to get in to cover the meeting he was kept out under orders of Superintendent Kevin Polston. 

There are two issues at stake — whether the school district violated the Open Meeting Act when it barred the media, as well as whether in choosing to exclude one group of people they violated the First Amendment. 

“The Open Meetings Act doesn’t allow a public body to exclude anyone ahead of time,” according to Robin Luce-Herrmann, an attorney for the Michigan Press Association. 

There were four members of the school board at the meeting, which constitutes a quorum of the board.

However, the Open Meetings Act says that a quorum present at a meeting is not enough to violate the act, as long as they are not making a decision or deliberations going on. 

“We felt it was important for our community to have their voice heard but in a safe place where it wasn’t going to be broadcast outside our community,” Polston said.

However, Luce-Herrmann views the situation differently.

 “I don’t see a distinction between the press and the public here, a member of the public could record and put it on their Facebook page,” Luce-Herrmann said.

The contention is that board members hearing the public input somehow does not constitute deliberation toward a future decision. 

“It’s a grey area and a cause for concern,” Luce-Herrmann said.

 The superintendent said the district wanted to create a “safe space” for parents and community members to talk and ask questions. 

“We limited membership to parents, student, staff and community members who live or work in Godfrey-Lee,” Polston said. 

But not everyone at the meeting was from the tiny district. 

“We had representatives, we had Rob VerHeulen, district director for (State) Sen. Peter MacGregor, we have State Rep. Tommy Brann and we had Poppy Hernandez, regional director for Gov. Whitmer on hand,” Polston said. 

Godfrey-Lee is a district that is 80 percent Hispanic, including a number of undocumented residents.

Immigration advocates have told 24 Hour News 8 that there is a fear of speaking publicly among some in the community for fear it could draw attention to their status.

But whether that justifies a potential violation of public access to meetings is a question that needs answering.

But Luce-Herrmann says public bodies are not allowed to pick and choose who attends meetings open to the general community. 

“The First Amendment allows the press and the public a right of access to events like this and that’s what should have been allowed here,” Luce-Herrmann said.  

But the superintendent stands by the district’s actions and does not rule out doing the same thing in the future. 

“We will handle each situation on a case by case basis to serve the needs of our parents and community,” Polston said. “Our responsibility is to serve our parents and community members in Godfrey-Lee. We exist as a school district because this community exists.” 

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