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 School Board Votes to Release Records

July 23, 2008 - The Charles A. Beard School Board voted last week to release unredacted copies of a handful of records The Banner had requested several times over the past two-and-a-half years.

Board member Steve Dalton, who made the motion to release the records, said they confirmed, for him, that CAB’s "books and records were kept in a very sloppy and haphazard manner in the past." He said things now appear to be "well managed and orderly" and "under control."

"In my opinion, after looking at these records, we're not missing any money," Dalton said. "We had inaccurate records - those were cleaned up on or about May of 2005. Nobody ran off with anything. … In terms of those inaccurate balances, there's not any missing money. They were improperly kept records, pure and simple; and those issues, I think, have been reconciled to my satisfaction."

The records include memos and documents former CAB Superintendent Hal Jester had sent board members in 2005. While CAB's new superintendent, Gary Storie, had recommended that records be released with the names of former CAB employees, which ended up including former Treasurer Judy Barnes, still being redacted, or blacked out, Dalton said he didn't think keeping the names hidden was necessary.

After noting he had recently spoken with the state's public access counselor, Dalton said, “Humiliation of past staff is not a reasonable exception to the public records request. If sloppy record keeping was done - and clearly it was … then let the chips fall where they may."

Board member Mark Fort seconded Dalton's motion to release the records with the names unredacted. He said that when it comes to taxpayer money, those making mistakes need to be willing to admit it.

Fort said he disagreed with the administration's position last year of not letting board member Kevin Knott, now the board's president, see the records when he asked to review them. "I just think it's totally wrong," he said of keeping the records redacted. "It's not right. It's just not doing the taxpayer right, and I believe the names should be printed. You know, when they foreclose on a guy's house because he can't afford the taxes on this school, they print his name. So, let the chips fall."

Responding to a concern about whether releasing the records with the names not blacked out would subject CAB to any claims of defamation, Dalton said he doubted it would.

"There's no question that these records were kept poorly," Dalton said. "We've got two independent state of Indiana audit reports (saying) that this was done improperly. I don't think there's anybody out there in the public domain that's going to have the nerve to file suit when we didn't balance our checkbook for three or four years in a row and claimed that that was being judicious in terms of managing money."

Dalton also said he didn't think that keeping the employees' names blacked out would really do much to protect their identities. "These people who are referenced in these reports, it's obvious who they are," he said. "So, I don't think that releases us from any liability because anybody that reads these reports is going to know who did it anyway. The fact that we name them or not, it's not going to make a bit of difference, in my opinion."

"What's assumed and what's written on paper is two different things," board member Ron Womack said. "You can assume a lot of things, and unless there's criminal intent, I don't think names should be released. … I personally object to that."

"What benefit will it be to the students for us to disclose those names?" asked board member Leah Kopp.

"I think sunshine, being forthright and honest with the way you conduct business, especially when you're managing the public's money, is the best lesson we can teach our kids," Dalton said. "... If there's anything I'm trying to teach my boys, it's that if I screw up, I admit it. And this district - and I've only been here a few years, but from I've read - has never done a very good job of admitting they've screwed up. They did and it's time these records came clean. And the fact of the matter is, these are public records, folks."

Fort said he agreed with the need for accountability. "The previous boards and administrations really had a hard time being accountable, a real hard time," he said. "I think we've seen this. One thing I want to teach my son is to be honest - don't hide things - and to be accountable."

"I think it's separate from educational and classroom issues," Knott said. "It has to do with leadership, responsibility, decision making, and direction."

Dalton noted that one of the requested records that had been completely blacked out simply listed the salaries of CAB's administrators. "I've never met anybody that thought it was proper to hide salaries of public officials," he said. "You can't do it. And this superintendent, by fiat, decided that he was going to keep this information private, and you can't do it. It's impossible, it's illegal, you just can't do it. It's just got to get out there in the open."

"But we've hired a new superintendent and the superintendent's recommendation is to release the records but withhold the names," Kopp said. "And I think that we should do as he wishes."

"I'd love to do that, but I'm going to be governed by what I think is right," Dalton said. He noted that the records were within the board's discretion to release, and said, "In terms of executing and determining what we do with our discretion, we need to say why not, and that better be pretty ringing and a very good reason not to," Dalton said. "And I can't come up with a good reason not to."

Womack continued to argue that he saw no reason for releasing the names of the former CAB employees mentioned in the records, expressing concern about liability for defamation of character. He said he thought the issue should be discussed with CAB's attorney and, at one point, said, "If it's smut, if that's what they want … read a tabloid." This drew a heated response from Dalton.

"This stuff has been written by a superintendent," Dalton said. "It's not smut. … It's public record, Ron. It's what people did. It's factual accounts of what happened. That's not smut, it's not pandering, it's not gossip, it's fact."

"It's the leader of our corporation, at that time," Fort said. "How is it smut?"

Womack apologized, saying he used the term smut "loosely." He said he still felt, however, that it served no purpose to release the names.

"What really drives to the heart of the issue for me has to do with the fact … these were clearly records of this school corporation that were kept and that were documented and that were practices or procedures that occurred," Knott said. "I see them as nothing else but that. … I would not see it as smut."

Despite Storie's recommendation that the records be released with the names redacted, five of the six board members present voted in favor of releasing them with the names revealed. Womack, who had argued that the names should continue to be blacked out, did not vote against releasing them, as one might have expected, but simply abstained from the vote.

Immediately following the vote, Womack handed a folded sheet of paper to Kopp, who passed it to Storie, who gave it to Knott. With Womack's permission, Knott proceeded to read aloud the letter, which announced Womack's resignation from the board, effective July 31.


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