Press barred from meeting about damaged Lee High

Kent County

WYOMING, Mich. (WOOD) — Members of the press were once again kept out of a community meeting Monday about the damage at Godfrey-Lee Public Schools’ Lee Middle & High School.

Part of the school’s roof collapsed in early June and a portion of the building’s outer wall fell days later

Students are set to return to classes in the building on Aug. 19, though repair work to the damaged portion of the school won’t be finished.

Godfrey-Lee Public Schools hosted two community forums following the damage. Both meetings were closed to working media members and said to be only open to individuals with direct ties to the school. 

More than half of the school board was in attendance at each of the meetings, school officials said. At Monday’s meeting, a representative from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office was present, as well as at least two representatives from the state Legislature.

Attendees said the discourse in the meeting was civil, though community members expressed varied levels of concern when it comes to sending students back into the building when classes begin.

Sandra Roblas’ son is a student at Lee Middle & High School. She told 24 Hour News 8 she wants to send her son to a different school, but is hesitant because she and her son like the teachers and enjoy the Godfrey-Lee school community.

Roblas said in Spanish that her son’s safety comes first. She said the school building needs help, expressing concern about the maintenance and upkeep of the school.

“We just want to make sure the kids are safe,” parent Tom Shepardson told 24 Hour News 8, adding that he does feel comfortable sending children back into the building based on the information he has seen.

School officials say plans are in place to move classes that would have been in the affected wing of the building to another part of the school. They promise class sizes will not be impacted by the temporary moves as reconstruction continues.

Repairing the damaged wing of the school will involve demolishing part of the school building and reconstructing it.

The recent meetings about the damage to Lee Middle & High School aren’t the first meetings regarding matters of public concern where reporters have been barred.

The district held meetings when considering whether to get rid of the school’s longtime “Rebel” mascot. Media was kept out of those gatherings as well, despite the presence of most, if not all of the school board members who later voted to change the mascot.

Godfrey-Lee Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Polston said school leaders wanted community members to feel comfortable addressing officials Monday without the presence of the news media.

“We wanted this meeting to be for our community members and to have a safe place to have their voice heard, broadcast just to this community here and not beyond that,” Polston told reporters after the meeting. “(School board members) were here to listen and accept feedback from the community, which the Open Meetings Act does allow.”

Given the presence of elected officials, tax dollars that may be used to rectify the damage, and the concern for student safety, 24 Hour News 8 attempted to attend the meeting Monday evening and provide coverage. The news crew was physically blocked by a school staffer and not allowed to enter the meeting room.

 Shepardson said he agreed with the decision to keep press out.

“The conversation is a little more comfortable for parents, especially in a small district like ours where we know everybody,” he said.

Polston cited provisions in the Open Meetings Act that he believes allows school leaders to limit who can attend, including a portion of the act that allows school board members to gather at a meeting to “listen to the concerns of a neighborhood organization.”

He also cited the following example provided in the Open Meetings Act Handbook:

”The OMA was not violated when several members of the board of county commissioners attended a public meeting of the county planning committee (which had more than fifty members, two who were county commissioners), which resulted in a quorum of the board being present at the meeting (without the meeting also being noticed as a county commission meeting), so long as the nonmember commissioners did not engage in deliberations or render decisions.”

Godfrey-Lee Public Schools has shared regular updates about the damage and progress of repairs on the district Facebook page in English and Spanish.

***EDITOR’S NOTE: Leon Hendrix, the reporter on this story, is a Lee High School alum. He graduated in 2004.***

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