Leader Blues

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

TOP STORY>> Lesson: FOI law must be obeyed

IN SHORT: Beebe board told to hold more of its meetings in public as critic is silenced.

By Joan McCoy
Leader staff writer

The Beebe School Board sat through a lesson on the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act Monday night at the request of a White County deputy prosecutor who has heard complaints for several months that the board conducts too much of its business in secret.

Teacher for the evening was Paul Blume, general counsel for the Arkansas School Board Association. Stewart Kirby, the complainant and general thorn in the flesh of the Beebe School Board, was thrown out of the class when he tried to ask a question.

Kirby said the next morning that he only wanted Blume to clarify for the board that he was entitled by law to be notified not only of a change in the date and time of regular meeting but also of a change of location. The board recently started meeting in the new storm shelter instead of the intermediate library.

But Blume flatly refused to respond saying the in-service he was conducting was for the board and no one else.

“I’m not answering your questions,” he told Kirby.

Dr. Kieth Williams, the superintendent, opened his cell phone and started dialing the Beebe Police Department as Kirby explained that the policy book for the school board said the board president could allow anyone to speak during a meeting.

Butch Rice, board president, settled the matter by telling Kirby he would not be allowed to speak and followed up the next morning, Kirby said, with an email threatening his arrest if he ever became unruly in a meeting again.

The unusual meeting was the culmination of months of discord between Kirby and the board that he has been closely scrutinizing and writing about on a website he created, the “Beebe School Examiner” at http://www.bbschoolexaminer.blogspot.com/.

Lorrie Belew, a member of the board, asked Blume if there was anything that could be done about Kirby’s website. At what point would his comments be considered libelous?
The board members works free because they want what’s best for the children, she said, but Kirby uses their names on his website with impunity.

“It’s really kind of a scary website, really,” she said.

Blume answered that it isn’t liable if it’s true.

Kirby’s two latest entries posted in May deal with Williams’ July retirement and the FOI class held Monday.

He writes on the retirement: “Did you get an invitation? I wasn’t invited to Dr. Williams’ surprise party. He was given a barbecue grill by the board. I hope they took up a collection because they are limited by law if it was paid for with school money. Also, staff and faculty gave him an envelope of cash. Give me a break. He is not going to be unemployed. He already has a new job. And why would anyone give him money considering that he was paid almost 100 grand a year plus benefits and lived in a house owned by the school? I’m sure I am not the only one who would have given him money to retire some years ago. 

He writes on the Freedom of Information class: “According to the Prosecuting Attorney’s office the Beebe School Board will be having a training session on the Freedom of Information Act. This is “to ensure that the FOIA is not violated by the Board and that the law is understood thoroughly.” The FOIA is very simple. Meetings are to be held in public expect for certain personnel matters and that is it. A student can request a closed expulsion hearing but the board cannot. Nothing else should be talked about behind closed doors.

Dr. Williams you cannot destroy public records. Dr. Williams you cannot ignore FOIA requests. There are laws you must follow even if you think you are above them.”
Specifically, Kirby says Williams refused to show him a copy of the board policy book which is a public document and that he failed to notify him of the change in location of the regular meetings.

He would like to be notified about special meetings which he says the board holds to circumvent the FOI. As Blume explained to the board after Kirby left, the press must be notified, of special meetings, but not the public.

His reference to destroying public documents was to Williams’ shredding applications for superintendent. He provided the press with the names of the applicants but no other information. He shredded the resumes after the board saw them, he told Blume.

And that is apparently acceptable according to Blume, who said the FOI makes the documents public as long as they exist, but the school district can’t hand over documents that have been shredded.

But his talk was also full of warnings since failing to comply with the FOI is a criminal offense punishable by a fine of up to $200 and 30 days in jail. He told board members they need not fear “talking shop” if they happen to meet on the street. Put don’t turn chance meetings into mini school board meetings and discuss actions that the board will take.

If in doubt, be cautious. “If you’re going to err, err on the side of being public,” he said.