SHERIDAN — Things move quickly and officials must make decisions rapidly for school districts throughout Sheridan County during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of ever-changing circumstances, several school districts have approved temporary emergency authority for superintendents and presidents to make those quick decisions.
Sheridan County School District 3 Board of Trustees were the first of the local districts to grant authority to Superintendent Charles Auzqui and Business Manager Greg Rohrer through a resolution March 18.
Those decisions were limited, per a resolution set to be passed by the board of trustees, to anything necessary to ensure continuation of public education, provide health and safety of students and employees and respond to direction from appropriate health and government authorities, listing actions included but not limited to processes affected by COVID-19.
Northern Wyoming Community College District Board of Trustees passed a nearly identical resolution Wednesday; before that Sheridan County School District 1 initiated its emergency authority March 27 during an emergency meeting via Zoom. The board granted Superintendent Pete Kilbride with temporary powers to address COVID-19 emergencies, meaning he can waive certain board policies as necessary to continue educating students.
“Now, Kilbride could move forward with a decision as opposed to calling a special board meeting and requiring a vote,” The Sheridan Press reported March 27. “This may happen if the matter is time sensitive and needs to be streamlined.”
Giving authority solely to one or two people rather than a board raises concern for transparency in decision-making processes and concern for how those decisions will be made public as they would in regular business at board meetings.
Action made by superintendents and Tribley have no formal regulations to report back to boards or the public, but it seems most action so far has been reconciled in regularly-scheduled meetings as established in board policies throughout. Wendy Smith, Sheridan College assistant vice president for strategic communication, said there is no formal process set up with the new emergency resolutions to reconcile information with board members, and the burden of notifying the public relies on public information officers.
For SCSD3, the resolution said the business manager is directed to keep the board of trustees informed on any actions taken under this emergency authority as soon as is practical in light of the circumstances. Auzqui said the resolution does not mean he is “given full power,” but instead works similarly to that of action during the summer months when decisions need to be made quickly. All decisions, though, will become official through board approval during regularly-scheduled meetings, so no decisions normally available to the public will be missed.
Sheridan County School District 2 has not passed any similar resolution but continues working under board policy CB, which allows Superintendent Craig Dougherty to manage the school system according to the provisions of law and the board’s policies, directives and decisions.
“The board reserves to itself the ultimate decision on all matters concerning policy, personnel and employment decisions, all expenditures of funds and all other powers and duties that are by law given solely to the board,” the policy reads.
The second and final paragraph of the policy gives power of administrative action to the superintendent in the absence of policy guidance or when an exception to the policy may be appropriate. Informing the board of action should be done “as soon as possible” but no later than the next regular board meeting, according to the document.
In regularly-scheduled meetings next week, SCSD1 and SCSD3 both have COVID-19 updates on the schedule, including formally approving the emergency authority for SCSD3. Adaptive learning plans for all schools throughout Wyoming have been approved by the Wyoming Department of Education, according to a press release sent by Michelle Panos, communications director for State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow’s office, April 2.
“I am impressed by the agility of Wyoming school districts to create learning plans designed to meet the needs of all students in this COVID-19 environment,” Balow said in a press release. “In the span of three weeks, the WDE and school districts worked together to build and approve these plans that will result in continued teaching and learning for more than 90,000 students and 20,000 staff in every school district across our state.”
Tribley stressed his responsibility with making decisions under this authority during a regularly-scheduled board meeting via Zoom April 1.
“…This is a temporary granting of unusual authorities,” Tribley said. “Those words are very important.
“This is my eighth year as a president or CEO of a complex organization,” he continued. “I’ve never exceeded my authorities, I’ve never abused my considerable authorities that come already with the position and I’ve never sought to extend my capabilities or my authority.”
The decision, though, doesn’t sit as well with Bruce Moats, the attorney who represents the Wyoming Press Association, saying he believes most of the decisions outlined under the resolutions could be done with the minimum eight-hour notice school boards have authority to provide.
He said usually in extreme circumstances like this he would give slack to governing bodies but doubts the necessity for such powers to be granted, especially given the accessibility — and now necessity — to meet via video or phone teleconferencing.
“It should make the public uncomfortable,” Moats said.
He said it was unclear in Wyoming statute whether the board has the ability to delegate decision-making to the superintendent, but certainly if they did, the board still has an obligation to notify the public of these decisions and how the superintendent or governing body came to a decision.
“Some things the public might want to weigh in on and they should certainly be aware of and may want to contact (governing bodies about the decision),” Moats said.