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School Board to meet again, just in case

Call it a do-over.

The School Board, hoping to quell accusations that it held an illegal meeting, plans to restage the budget and tax hearing it held Thursday.

In its first try, only two of the board's five members showed up in person. A third participated by phone.

School Board attorney Karen Gaffney said that was enough to comply with a state law that says a majority must be present for action. But her opinion is drawing fire.

Rather than risk a lawsuit or, worse, a taxpayer revolt based on the idea the new tax rate was set illegally, superintendent Wendy Tellone decided that the School Board should meet again.

"I can't afford to put the organization in this situation," Tellone said Friday.

So, on Wednesday at 5:01 p.m., the School Board will try again. This time, the plan is to have at least three warm-bodied School Board members in the room. It will mean some additional costs. State law requires that hearings be announced in newspaper ads.

The last ad cost $1,290.87.

When the meeting was held, only board members John Druzbick and Sandra Nicholson were seated at the dais. Jim Malcolm, vacationing in Maine, phoned in and had his voice broadcast to the sparse assembly gathered for the hearing.

The other two board members _ Gail David and Robert Wiggins _ were absent. School officials said they were out of town, visiting family or vacationing. Neither could be reached Friday.

The board, or at least those members participating, took care of business in 30 minutes. Malcolm hung up. The others started home. But before Druzbick and Nicholson left, they were confronted by former School Board member Stephen Galaydick, who said the meeting was not legal.

To back up his claim, Galaydick went home and searched the Internet until he found a 1998 opinion from the Florida attorney general that supports his position.

That opinion said a "school board may use electronic media technology in order to allow a physically absent member to attend a public meeting if a quorum of the members of the board is physically present at the meeting site."

So, Galaydick said Friday, "That hearing is not valid because they did it illegally."

"He's right," said Jon Kaney, the general counsel for the First Amendment Foundation, a nonprofit Florida group devoted to preserving freedom of speech and of the press.

To be more specific, Kaney said, the board broke no law by holding its poorly attended meeting. It's just that nothing the board did there _ tentatively approving its budget and tax rate _ carries any legal weight.

"I think they need a do-over," Kaney said. "They have not had a public hearing. They have had two guys get together and talk about it."

Without a do-over, Kaney said, the board opens itself up to a challenge of its taxing authority. Beyond that, he said, it defeats the purpose of having a local government.

"They could all go to Maine and a roomful of angry taxpayers shows up and there's no one there," Kaney said. "If you want me to pay your taxes, show up and look me in the eye."

Gaffney, the School Board's attorney, based her position on a Florida law that says business may be done at a meeting so long as a quorum "is present." To Gaffney, that does necessarily mean "present in person."

Galaydick, who is running against Wiggins for the District 1 School Board seat, said this episode was evidence that the board needs new faces.

"Especially in District 1," Galaydick said. "This is serious business. He shouldn't be on vacation. I'm glad I was paying attention, at least."

_ Robert King covers education in Hernando County and can be reached at 754-6127. Send e-mail to rkingsptimes.com.

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