Bettendorf school board admits meeting improperly closed

The board of education of the Bettendorf Community School District has approved  an agreement to settle a lawsuit that challenged the legality of a board gathering held in May 2022.

The school board voted recently to accept the out-of-court settlement that was negotiated by its attorneys and lawyers representing five plaintiffs. The lawsuit was filed last summer by the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization; the Quad City Times, and television stations KWQC, WQAD and WHBF.

As part of the settlement, the school board acknowledged that the gathering on May 25, 2022 did not comply with the requirements of Iowa’s public meetings law. The school board also promised that in the future, meetings dealing with school policies and procedures will be conducted in compliance with the public meetings law when a majority of school board members are present.

The agreement also requires the school district to reimburse the plaintiffs $6,500 for their attorney fees.

The lawsuit grew out of a gathering in which about 300 Bettendorf school district parents met with Superintendent Michelle Morse and all but one of the members of the Bettendorf school board. The parents expressed their concerns about rowdy behavior and harassment by some students at Bettendorf Middle School that had injured other students in hallways and restrooms.

Quad Cities journalists were blocked from attending the Bettendorf gathering. Parents at the meeting were told they could not record the session for other people to watch later.

Iowa’s 50-year-old public meetings law requires that gatherings, both formal and informal, of a majority of members of a government board to deliberate or act on any matter within the scope of the board’s policy-making duties must be open to the public, including journalists. The law also allows anyone at such gatherings to photograph or record the sessions.

Interest in the Bettendorf meeting was heightened because it occurred one day after the massacre of students at a Uvalde, Texas, elementary school. Bettendorf Middle School parents had been complaining for weeks about what they believed were inadequate actions by school officials to deal with the disorderly behavior.

As part of the negotiated settlement agreement the school board approved, the Iowa FOI Council and the media companies will dismiss their Scott County District Court lawsuit.

Attorneys for the Bettendorf school board had insisted before negotiations began that the gathering last year was not an official meeting of the school board because the six members present merely listened and did not discuss the concerns and criticisms the parents voiced.

But the media coalition said in a letter to Superintendent Morse and board president Rebecca Eastman on June 3, 2022, “It would stretch believability to think that spending a couple of hours listening to the concerns of parents about the behavior of some Bettendorf Middle School students … does not fall within the meaning of deliberations on matters clearly within the scope of the Board of Education’s policy-making duties.”

Here is a copy of the settlement agreement: Settlement.Agreement

Here is a copy of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council statement on the settlement: Bettendorf.lawsuit.statement

Here is a copy of the letter the Iowa FOI Council and Quad Cities media sent to Bettendorf school officials in 2022 protesting the exclusion of the media from the meeting: Bettendorf.Supt.letter