As if the controversy surrounding Vang Pao Elementary School wasn't enough, the Madison school board apparently violated the state's Open Meetings Law on Monday when, during a closed meeting, it discussed how to react to news of Vang Pao's arrest.
As three members tell Isthmus, Superintendent Art Rainwater interrupted the board's review of expulsions to announce that reporters outside were asking about federal prosecutors charging Vang Pao with masterminding a plot to overthrow the government of Laos.
"Our jaws dropped" as board members read a news story and listened to Rainwater's summary, says one participant. Board members decided to have board President Arlene Silveira tell the press that the board would withhold further comment.
Collectively deciding on a matter not listed on the agenda for a closed meeting is a clear violation of Wisconsin's Open Meetings Law, says attorney Bob Dreps of Godfrey & Kahn.
"The statute forbids them from taking up matters not listed on their agenda," says Dreps. It also requires an authority to openly state in advance what subjects will be discussed in closed session, and what exemption permits this.
Dreps allows that the violation was arguably "not egregious," and veteran board member Carol Carstensen says any violation was incidental. "It was one of those things that just happened," she says. "It was stunning news. The media was outside. It was an immediate, crisis situation." And no one suggested such discussion was inappropriate.
As a sign of how tense things have become, board Vice President Lawrie Kobza, a lawyer, snapped when Isthmus asked about the Open Meetings issue. "You know what? We're damned if we do and damned if we don't. I don't want to talk about it."
The school board chose to honor Vang Pao with a school naming after Madison's Hmong community turned out in force to testify as to the general's valor in fighting for the Americans during the Vietnam War and leading his people to safety in the United States.
Board members shrugged off allegations that Vang Pao participated in war crimes and drug dealing when he led a CIA-sponsored army against the North Vietnamese and Laotian communist governments. Lucy Mathiak claimed opponents of the naming made "vicious, ugly, racist and ignorant" comments.
It now appears likely the school will get a new name. Previously, this was something only Carstensen was willing to consider, drawing sharp criticism. "I think everyone involved kind of reached top emotional pitch much quicker than we ought to have," she says.