Jasper schools official fights to be heard by his board

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Jasper schools official fights to be heard by his board

By RACHEL HEATON
rheaton@beaufortgazette.com
Published Saturday, June 9, 2012   |  1352 Words  |  

Two recent Jasper County school board meetings have ended the same way -- abruptly and with hard feelings.

It starts when board member Randy Horton attempts to air concerns about possible wrong-doing by the district administration. But his voice doesn't travel far before chairman Kathleen Snooks cuts him off and adjourns the meeting without a vote by the board.

"Let him speak," some audience members chant.

Horton says he's frustrated, alleging the board's attempts to silence him are illegal.

School district officials maintain the board follows policy and the law.

An expert on the S.C. Freedom of Information Act, however, calls the situation unusual -- and possibly illegal.

HORTON'S CONCERNS

The school board has been embroiled lately in a rancorous debate on whether to consolidate middle and high schools in Hardeeville and Ridgeland. The proposal has drawn crowds of more than 100 to board meetings.

But Horton's concerns aren't related to consolidation. In fact, a meeting May 29 was adjourned before consolidation was even discussed because Horton tried to speak.

Horton, whose district includes part of Ridgeland, said he has tried repeatedly to get board members to address his concerns, but they won't vote to put his issues on the agenda. So Horton filed a Freedom of Information Act requests for some district records.

Horton seeks:

  • Copies of some staff members' bonus checks, which he says were not approved by the board.
  • A copy of the background check on Arthur Lee Holmes, the district's head of human resources. Horton said he has asked for this because Holmes was charged in 2010 with embezzling public funds while serving as principal in another school district.
  • A copy of credit-card statements or records for former board member and current district athletic director James Gardner, current board members Snooks, Alina Hamilton-Clark, Berty Riley, Cathy Gardner and Priscilla Fraser, and superintendent Vashti Washington. Horton said he is concerned there has been inappropriate spending, especially after an October letter to the editor in the Jasper County Sun by Cathy Gardner. In the letter, she admits her husband, James Gardner, "overspent" by $600 on his district credit card. She states that other board members knew, and that he paid it back.
  • In denying Horton's request for copies of the bonus checks, the district says the law does not require it to disclose certain employees' salaries.

    The district also denied his request for the copy of Holmes' background check, saying doing so would violate employee privacy rules.

    To see the credit-card records for Snooks, Hamilton-Clark, Riley, Cathy Gardner and Priscilla Fraser, the district has told Horton to pay a $116.44 deposit to cover costs associated with fulfilling the request.

    Horton says he's tried to pay the requested amount at the district office -- district officials have not confirmed that -- and has been asked to pay by certified check. At meetings May 29 and Wednesday, Horton tried to present Washington with a certified check to fulfill the request. Horton said he's also tried to pay in cash at a previous board meeting.

    A school district attorney, William Halligan, said that's inappropriate.

    "When you are asked to pay the money, you don't show up at night with the check," he said. "You mail it in."

    ATTORNEYS DISAGREE

    S.C. Press Association attorney Jay Bender cites an S.C. Attorney General Office's opinion that an elected official is entitled to see all the records of the public body they govern in order to fulfill their obligations to their constituents.

    Bender said Horton should be able to see the credit-card records, background check and bonus checks.

    "It's absurd that the administration is denying this board member access to records and that the superintendent is being backed up by a majority of the board," Bender said. "Even the most unenlightened public bodies understand that the people being elected to run the body are entitled to information."

    Bender questioned the board's motives for denying access.

    "You have to wonder what is it that the majority is trying to keep from the public," he said. "It's possible that one person is off his rocker, but when you're asking for public records, nothing says that you have to be sane."

    Bender also said it's rare that elected officials have to file FOIA requests for information.

    Halligan said such FOIA requests by elected officials are unusual, but they occur, though he could not provide a specific example.

    "It happens more than that you think," he said.

    Halligan denies the board is hiding anything.

    "It's not correct that a member of a school board has the right to all records," he said. "There's many personnel and student records which no board member has access to."

    Halligan said that when Horton pays for the credit-card records, he will receive them.

    DEFINING THE PUBLIC

    Unable to get the records or agenda items he has requested. Horton has tried to address the board during its comments session, just as any other member of the public would.

    Horton has not been called upon to speak.

    The board's policy, which is online, says that someone wanting to speak must be a citizen of Jasper County or have a child in the schools, and complete a form that lists the subject matter.

    When asked why Horton has not been allowed to speak, Halligan said the policy refers only to visitors and members of the public.

    "In the board chair's mind, that's different from being a board member," Halligan said.

    An attempt to reach Snooks was unsuccessful.

    Bender said it's possible that denying Horton's request to talk violates his First Amendment right to free speech, but he added that he'd have to review the board's policies, which were not immediately available, to see if board members were barred from public comment.

    When Horton stood to talk Wednesday, several in the crowd of about 200 yelled he should be allowed to speak. A school district attorney, Kenneth Childs, told Horton it was the board's policy that one of its members could not speak during public comment.

    Snooks called for a motion to adjourn, but the motion did not pass. She banged her gavel, and several board members rose and left, effectively ending the meeting.

    Halligan said Snooks can do that when she deems a meeting to be so disrupted that normal business cannot proceed. The May 29 meeting ended similarly.

    Horton said he just wants his concerns heard and his records requests granted.

    "I shouldn't have to be doing all this," he said. "It's public records, not private records."

    Follow reporter Rachel Heaton at twitter.com/HomeroomBft.

    Related content:

    Dispute over Jasper County school consolidation plan reignites; June 6, 2012

    Jasper County School District considers school consolidation plans; May 30, 2012

    Gardner: Horton trying to discredit campaign; Jasper County Sun
    http://www.blufftontoday.com/news/2010-10-26/jasper-educator-duty-after-... " target="_blank">
    Jasper educator on duty after arrest; Bluffton Today, Oct. 26, 2010


    Jasper County School District board policies