During a May 13 meeting, board members voted to change the method of annual evaluation for the county school system’s director to an assessment put together by the Tennessee School Boards Association.
Board Chair Vicki Beaty said during the meeting it was similar to a model that had been used prior to last year. The school system had used a version of the TSBA evaluation in previous years, but the board in 2013 created its own evaluation rubric based on recommendations from the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.
“We developed a great tool last year,” McDaniel said at the May meeting. “I’m willing to use the TSBA model because there was something controversial about using that [last year’s] model.”
During the board’s June 4 meeting, Beaty reminded board members to turn in their anonymous evaluation surveys that would later be used as part of the director evaluation process. The evaluations were supposed to be turned in on the following day, June 5.
A Cleveland Daily Banner reporter on Monday afternoon called Sammie Humphrey, assistant to the director and the school system’s records custodian, to request copies of the evaluation surveys that were supposed to have been turned in the week prior and were set to be used in the evaluation process.
Humphrey told the reporter she was not sure the information could be released, and said she would need to consult with the school board’s attorney.
On Tuesday morning, she responded to the reporter with an email message after a conversation with attorney Chris McCarty of Knoxville-based Lewis, Thomason, King, Krieg & Waldrop PC.
“I spoke with our school board attorney yesterday (Monday) about the request you made via phone call yesterday,” Humphrey wrote in the email. “He asked that we have you put your request for evaluation in writing. Please be specific about the information you request. If you will drop this by the Central Office, we will comply according to T.C.A. 10-7-503.”
The section of Tennessee Code Annotated Humphrey referenced outlines the state’s laws regarding which public records can be requested by residents and how those requests must be handled.
It states in section (a)(1), “As used in this part and title 8, chapter 4, part 6, ‘public record or records’ or ‘state record or records’ means all documents, papers, letters, maps, books, photographs, microfilms, electronic data processing files and output, films, sound recordings or other material, regardless of physical form or characteristics, made or received pursuant to law or ordinance or in connection with the transaction of official business by any governmental agency.”
The statute continues in section B to read, “The custodian of a public record or the custodian's designee shall promptly make available for inspection any public record not specifically exempt from disclosure. In the event it is not practicable for the record to be promptly available for inspection, the custodian shall, within seven (7) business days: (i) Make the information available to the requestor; (ii) Deny the request in writing or by completing a records request response form developed by the office of open records counsel. The response shall include the basis for the denial; or (iii) Furnish the requestor a completed records request response form developed by the office of open records counsel stating the time reasonably necessary to produce the record or information.”
Tennessee Press Association attorney Rick Hollow, who provides legal advice to news organizations statewide from his Knoxville office, said it is not unusual for a government entity — in this case, a public school system — to ask that such requests be made in writing.
Wednesday afternoon, the Banner reporter made an in-person delivery of an open records request letter as indicated by Humphrey in her email message. However, the reporter was not allowed to receive copies of the evaluation forms in either a print or electronic format as requested, and Humphrey denied a request to view the evaluations in the office without obtaining copies.
“Just leave the letter,” Humphrey said before pausing to read it. “Those may be protected under open records law because they’re a working document — but I’ll find out.”
Section (2)(A) of T.C.A. 10-7-503 states, “All state, county and municipal records shall, at all times during business hours, which for public hospitals shall be during the business hours of their administrative offices, be open for personal inspection by any citizen of this state, and those in charge of the records shall not refuse such right of inspection to any citizen, unless otherwise provided by state law.”
In keeping with this section of state law, the reporter asked to read the evaluation forms in the office rather than receive copies of them to take out of the office.
“No, I don’t think so,” Humphrey said. “I’ll have to get this to our attorney.”
Hollow said the reporter not being able to inspect the readily available documents onsite was a violation of state law.
The part of state law that specified records be “open for personal inspection” meant the evaluation forms should have been available to view, he said. He was not aware of any exception to the rule that would apply in this case.
“They don’t want you to have it,” Hollow said. “It’s called ‘delay and obfuscation,’ in my terminology.”
Beaty said Wednesday afternoon that she had met with Humphrey to go through the evaluations and tally the results on Tuesday. Rather than include copies of each of the evaluation surveys, Beaty said “tally sheets” averaging scores ranging from 1 to 5 in various categories had been included in board members’ ‘packets’ of information to prepare for the upcoming meeting.”
Without prior knowledge of the reporter’s request, Beaty said she had been told in the past that anything included in the “packet” was public information. She said she had not been aware of anyone ever requesting to see individual evaluation surveys as opposed to the final tallies, but she said the information could possibly be released to the public as well.
“I would assume that they would be public record,” Beaty said.
When made aware of the request to Humphrey, she pointed out that she and Humphrey had not gone through the evaluation forms before the reporter’s initial request for information was made by phone.
She also pointed out Bradley County Board of Education members had agreed to the option of filling out the evaluation surveys anonymously, if they desired.
Beaty confirmed that some board members chose to sign their names, making their individual opinions known.
“Some signed and some did not,” Beaty said.
She also noted there was no space designated on the evaluation surveys for board members to write comments.
Without copies of the evaluations in hand, it is unclear whether any board members — particularly those who chose to sign their names — wrote any comments in the margins or on the back of the evaluation pages.
Early today (Thursday morning), Beaty said in a phone call that Humphrey had spoken with the school board attorney on Wednesday afternoon, and Humphrey had updated Beaty on the Banner’s requests.
Beaty said the attorney had told them that the evaluation forms turned in by individual school board members were considered “working papers” because they were documents filled out by school board members in preparation for creating the document that included the averaged director evaluation scores.
“Working papers are not available under the Open Records Act,” Beaty said.
McDaniel also returned a call this morning. He said he had been made aware of the request, and an official response to the records request was being written.
“It would be our school attorney’s opinion,” McDaniel said.
While the school director evaluation is an item on the upcoming meeting’s agenda, Hollow said school board members are not required to discuss the contents of the evaluation forms prior to making a decision on how the director will be evaluated.
“The fact that those evaluations are going to be used in a decision … is even more of a reason for it to be public record,” Hollow said. “They don’t have to discuss anything in that meeting.”
He pointed out that it is not uncommon for discussions in local government meetings in general to center around information that is distributed to board members, but not automatically given to members of the general public. Members of governmental organizations can legally refrain from discussing certain matters in public meetings, but state law dictates their records be open to the public.
“That is official business being conducted by a government agency,” Hollow said. “They have an obligation to tell you. It’s public record … I don’t care if it’s ‘working’ or ‘non-working.’ They’re sticking a middle finger in the face of the Constitution and the people.”
He added the “burden” of proving whether or not the information can be given out is “on their shoulders.”
An official written denial of the requested information was not received before press deadlines this morning.
The meeting in which the director will be evaluated will take place at 5:30 tonight in the board room of the Bradley County Schools Central Office, which is located off South Lee Highway adjacent to Bradley Central High School.
Other agenda items include discussion of the school board attorney’s contract and renovations at Lake Forest Middle School.