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 Three Weeks Before Election, CAB Board Wants to See Records

April 23, 2008 - For the second time in two months, Charles A. Beard School Board member Kevin Knott has used the closing minutes of a board meeting to criticize the school corporations' ongoing refusal to let him review four public records he first asked to see last September.

Knott's statements at the April 15 CAB School Board meeting were nearly identical to comments he made at meeting on February 19. While his criticisms and impassioned pleas for open government were either met with opposition or completely ignored by his fellow board members in February, Knott appeared to fare a little better last week.

At issue are four records former Superintendent Hal Jester sent school board members in 2004 and 2005, before Knott joined the board, that are believed to address, in part, CAB finances, state audits, school security and tax matters. When Knott asked to see them on September 21, CAB's public access counselor, Jena Schmidt, only let him see redacted, or censored, copies of the records, like ones CAB gave The Banner in 2005.

Since Schmidt first denied his request, Knott has consistently held the same position, which is supported by Indiana Public Access Counselor Heather Neal. Both believe that as an elected member of CAB's governing body, Knott has the right to review uncensored copies of these records, which are all documents within CAB's discretion to release.

At last week's meeting, Knott again stated that he believes it is within his rights "as a board member and elected official" to review the records in their unredacted form. He also said he took issue with the administration's decision to have CAB's attorney, Mike Wallman, spend several hours working on this matter.

"It doesn't matter to me if it's one hour or 11 hours," Knott said. "My concern is those were taxpayer dollars." He said the decision to involve the attorney in this matter - a decision that was not made by the school board - heightened his concern about the records and the information that might be on them.

"It would be my preference that those taxpayer dollars go for a school social worker, would go for courses in the music department, and those areas that we had to consider for (reduction in force) … the past couple of years," Knott said. "I feel sorely that that money was spent in ways that it surely should not have been."

Knott said he was "perplexed" by the administration's decision to pay its attorney more than $1,000 to justify not letting him see the records. "I just wonder what might be there," he said, "that I, as an elected official, am not allowed to review or see."

Board Vice President Wade Beatty, who chaired last week's meeting in Fruth's absence, asked Knott if he was making a motion to look at the records. Knott said he was not making a motion, and once again explained that he didn't think any board action was needed to give him or any other board member the right to look at the records.

Beatty said he had asked because the redactions previously made to the records had been approved by the previous board and legal counsel, and that a board decision would be needed to "unredact" them. (In fact, the redactions made to the records given to The Banner in 2005 were made by Jester and CAB's then-attorney, Ed Dunsmore, and were never approved by the school board during a public meeting. - Ed.)

"I'm going to make a motion that we open up these records and that the board review them as a board, and if there's anything that needs to be let known, that we let it (be) known," board member Leah Kopp said. "This has carried on long enough. We need to act on it and get it taken care of." About 20 seconds after Kopp made her motion, board member Ron Womack seconded it.

Kopp asked Knott why he had not made the motion she made when he brought this issue up in February. "I don't understand," she said, "and that's a question I've asked myself over and over again."

Knott once again explained that he did not make the motion - or second hers - because he believes board action is not needed for him or other board members to see the records. He refrained from questioning Kopp about why she had remained silent on this issue until that night’s meeting and had shown no support when he brought the matter up in February.

Kopp's motion passed by a vote of 5-1. Beatty cast the lone dissenting vote, which he explained to The Banner after the meeting.

"The first thing I put in front of me is the kids, the students of the school corporation," Beatty said. "Nobody's been able to explain to me (reviewing the records) promotes that."

While the board's stated intention was to review the four unredacted records during an executive session in May, those plans now appear to have changed. Neal, the state's public access counselor, told The Banner last week that Indiana's Open Door Law does not permit public agencies like the CAB School Board to review records like these in executive session.

According to Neal, the only records that the school board could review in a private executive session are those that have been declared confidential by state or federal statute. Neal said that these particular records, which were redacted at CAB's discretion in 2005, do not meet that requirement.

This is actually the second time Neal has responded to questions regarding CAB's attempts to hold an executive session with respect to these records. When the issue came up last September, Neal was of the same opinion that she is now.

"I believe records withheld for discretionary reasons … are not records declared confidential by statute, as nothing in (the statute) indicates they are confidential," Neal said last September. Saying her position was also supported by opinions of two public access counselors who preceded her, Neal said she did not believe it was proper to meet in executive session to review or discuss these records.

Although a private executive session is not permitted to look at these records, Neal told The Banner that CAB School Board members have another option other than reviewing them at a public meeting. Repeating her initial position on this issue, she said she thinks "it would be appropriate for the board members to individually review the records," and then vote at a public meeting on whether or not to release them.

The Banner shared e-mail correspondence from Neal regarding this matter with CAB's Schmidt, who told The Banner Tuesday afternoon that Pavy had spoken with Neal, Beatty and CAB's attorney. She said her understanding is that a decision has been made not to hold an executive session. Asked whether that means Knott and other board members will be allowed to individually review the records, she said that Pavy and the attorney will discuss the "specific process to follow to accomplish the board's decision to review documents."

 

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