DeWitt school board loses lawsuit over illegal closed meeting

A Clinton County judge issued a stinging decision last month that the Central DeWitt school board violated Iowa’s public meetings law when board members, the school superintendent and several other administrators met in a nearly two-hour closed meeting to discuss thorny issues facing the school district.

The meeting was closed to the public under the guise of evaluating the superintendent’s job performance – justification, the judge concluded, that was not supported by the content of the audio recording of the meeting.

The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by the DeWitt Observer newspaper. Observer Publisher Trevis Mayfield and his wife Nancy own the Observer and paid about $18,500 in their quest to force the release of the audio recording of the closed meeting. The judge also ordered the school district to reimburse the Mayfields for their legal expenses.

Here is Trevis Mayfield’s column this week on the court decision, which has garnered statewide attention, including from members of the Iowa Legislature:

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Central DeWitt Schools Superintendent Dan Peterson was dishonest last year when he told the public the purpose of an illegally closed meeting was to review his performance.

And, in a mystifying lack of governance, school board members failed to object.

Those unfortunate realities are now clear because of a lawsuit this newspaper filed that forced the district to release an audio recording of the meeting. What is not as clear is why no one at the meeting objected to the violation of Iowa’s open meetings law – a law all elected officials and public servants should understand and respect.

The recording captures Peterson opening the meeting in a way that makes clear he never intended the meeting to be a performance review at all. He told the board he wanted to discuss curriculum, gender and sexuality issues and an administrative realignment.

During the meeting’s first hour and 40 minutes, the board talked exclusively about the appropriateness of using specific books in school and how to handle parents’ complaints about them.

During the remainder of the meeting, the group — which included not only Peterson and the board, but also some of Peterson’s subordinates — discussed gender neutral bathrooms, how to provide protections for transgender students and a plan to adjust administrative assignments.

The content of the meeting became public late last month when a district judge issued a harshly written ruling that picked apart the district’s claim it had closed the meeting to evaluate Peterson.

In his ruling, the judge wrote that “the scope of the meeting was breathtaking in contrast to its stated purpose.”

Among other blunt critiques, the judge included this zinger: “This was not a minor or technical violation.”

With that, one might assume the district’s leadership would make an immediate show of contrition toward the public and offer a full-throated apology.

That’s not what happened.

Instead, in a misguided effort to get ahead of negative publicity, the district rushed to post a recording of the meeting on its website along with a poorly thought message that carried each board member’s name.

The post, which can be read on the district’s website at, contains a line that is especially troubling. It reads: “The Board maintains that the individual Board members acted appropriately leading up to and during the closed session.”

The sentence gaslights constituents.

We wonder who wrote the statement, and we wonder why all board members were willing to put their names on it.

But, despite having filed the lawsuit and risked thousands of dollars to bring about this reckoning, we still believe the board is made up of people with honest intentions. We have chosen to cling to the notion that the individuals who make up the board don’t possess a full understanding of the requirements and intent of Iowa’s open meetings law and allowed themselves to be misled by those who should have known better.

While superintendents and school board attorneys are highly trained and highly paid professionals, board members are merely elected community volunteers who make their livings doing other things.

We also feel strongly that it’s important to consider the nature of what board members said during the meeting. While the topics were politically charged, the discussion was thoughtful and productive — except for the fact it should have been conducted in public.

What we don’t understand is why board members have been willing to follow Peterson down this disastrous path, and why, even now, they continue to give him cover.

The beginning of this unnecessary adventure was Peterson’s faulty decision to pull books from classroom use without consideration of district procedures. Then, when the issue leaked into public view, as anyone who is politically astute should have assumed it would, he requested the closed meeting and was dishonest with the public about its purpose.

It seems likely Peterson was looking for a way to shield himself from public accountability for his knee-jerk decision.

Then, after it became obvious the meeting violated the law, Peterson remained defiant, trying to save face, and the board followed his lead again, allowing the district to waste thousands of taxpayers’ dollars defending a claim that wasn’t true.

Where the district’s legal counsel fits into this wreck of a story, we don’t know, but we do believe a wary eye should be cast in that direction as well. Whatever amount the district’s attorney is paid for handling this case, we believe the price is too high.

Board members, for whatever reason, have allowed themselves to be sucked into the center of this unnecessary mess that has drawn unflattering statewide attention to DeWitt, and some of it, no doubt, is their own fault.

There are no disputed facts here. No spin job will make a dent. The community understands what has happened. The only question that remains is how the story ends.

The board could finally accept responsibility for governing the district, speak in a straight-forward manner to its constituents, and make some hard decisions. If not, voters will eventually have the opportunity to do it for them.

One last thought:

Given the board has not conducted a public meeting since the judge’s ruling, we are curious how its members came to agree on the language it posted in its response.

Each board member’s name is on the letter, so we assume each read it and agreed to it before it was posted. We are curious how that could have been achieved legally without a public meeting.

While we are not alleging a second violation of the law, we believe it raises interesting questions. We will keep you posted.