A series of emails that started in early October among several Fort Smith School Board members has resulted in a letter to the board from local prosecutor Daniel Shue informing them of violations of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.
A local watch dog attorney says he intends to file a civil lawsuit in the matter in the near future. Joey McCutchen, who is already waiting for an Arkansas Supreme Court decision in a previous case stemming from alleged “secret meetings” held in conjunction with the change of the Southside High School mascot earlier in the year, says it’s all about transparency.
“It’s business as usual,” said McCutchen. “You would think that with everything that went on with the mascot controversy someone would have learned a lesson. That doesn’t seem to be the case.”
McCutchen said that emails passed between members of the board as well as interim superintendent Gordon Floyd and at least two other district employees. The emails, addressing the appointment of school board officers for another term, fall under the FOIA because of the lack of transparency regarding the discussions.
“It’s the same as if the school board went down to Benson’s Grill and huddled in the back room to talk about who they wanted to hold the offices for the next year,” said McCutchen. “I don’t think your website, the local newspaper or any of the local television stations were invited to the group email.”
School board president Deannie Mehl told media outlets that the chain of emails was never meant to deceive anyone and felt at the time was legal because a slate of officers had been discussed in a public forum previous to the group email.
Mehl added that as long as she is on the board there will not be another episode of group emails discussing district business.
“I’m thoroughly convinced that part of this was deliberate and part of it was just because the FOIA and what it entails just went completely over the head of some members,” said McCutchen. “You would think that a district that is spending $60,000 defending a lawsuit in front of the state Supreme Court for essentially he same thing would get the district’s lawyer and all of the school board members together for a training session or something.”
McCutchen said he obtained the emails in question through a FOIA filing and took the information to Shue after comments at a school board meeting to the effect that the slate of officers was a ”done deal” after no public discussion was held.
“When I took the information to the prosecutor he immediately recognized that this was a violation,” said McCutchen. “While the decision whether to prosecute the case or not was entirely his, I told him I was perfectly fine with a strongly worded letter to the board pointing out the violation.”
“Had this been the first time, “I probably would have just let it go,” said McCutchen. “But at some point it just simply becomes defiance in the face of reason and for board members to proclaim they have ‘been paying close attention to the FOIA’ in light of the Southside fiasco just doesn’t seem to be the case.”
McCutchen said the school board received the letter from Shue on November 8.
“We expect a ruling any day on June Bradshaw vs. Fort Smith School District and Fort Smith School Board of Education for the secret meetings they held before doing away with the Rebel Mascot and the fight song,” said McCutchen. “Once again, where is the promised accountability and transparency.”