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November 7, 2005

Public Information and Tonight's Land Purchase Vote

Tonight the Board of Education will vote on approving the purchase of land in the proposed plat of Linden Park located along Redan Road on the west side of Madison. The Board will vote on approving the purchase of 8.234 acres for the price of $535,258.83. One provision of the agreement requires the District to offer to sell the property back to the developer at the District's original purchase price plus the cost of improvements plus 5% interest compounded daily, if the District determines not to build a school on the site and instead to sell the property.

The Offer to Purchase this property was signed by the developer on September 23, 2005, and was signed by Roger Price for the School District on September 26, 2005. The Offer is contingent upon Board approval.

Despite the fact that negotiations over this contract were completed at the end of September, this signed contract was not available for public review until last Friday, November 4, 2005. In fact, the signed contract was deliberately kept from public review before then. A Board meeting to discuss the signed contract was held in closed session on October 10, 2005 (Ruth Robarts and I voted against going into closed session on this matter), and an open records request by Jim Zellmer for a copy of the signed document was denied.

The reason given for keeping this signed purchase document from the public was that the open meetings law permits a closed session for the purpose of "[d]eliberating or negotiating the purchasing of public properties, the investing of public funds, or conducting other specified public business, whenever competitive or bargaining reasons require a closed session." However, a 1994 Attorney General's Opinion issued by then Attorney General Jim Doyle
indicates that while a closed session is appropriate to formulate strategy while engaged in negotiations, once a governmental body has reached a tentative agreement, bargaining ceases as does the rationale for keeping matters from the public. At that point, the opinion states "[t]he question before the governmental body is no longer what strategy the body should adopt in order to obtain an agreement with favorable terms. The question is whether it is in the public's interest to ratify the terms as tentatively agreed to by the parties. Given that the governmental body is not actually engaged in negotiations at that point, it does not appear that "competitive or bargaining reasons" as that phrase is used in section 19.85(1)(e) exist to warrant discussing the agreement in closed session."

I am disappointed that the majority of the Board felt it was appropriate to keep this signed contract for the purchase of land for a new school site from the public until the Friday before we are asked to vote on the contract. I would have appreciated receiving public comment on the location of the proposed school site, the cost of the site, and the conditions included in the signed agreement. In particular, I would have appreciated receiving information from the Board's two long range planning task forces on their thoughts about the proposed site. I believe this information would help me make an informed vote on the purchase.

I also believe the public would have more confidence in the Board's decision-making if the public could see that information was made public in a timely way, if input was sought and considered, and if important matters such as the purchase of property were discussed openly.

The purchase of a new school site is a decision with important fiscal and long-range planning impacts. It could have a significant impact on the District for decades into the future. It is a decision that should be made in the light of day, not behind closed doors.

Posted by Lawrie Kobza at November 7, 2005 9:33 AM
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