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CAB Records Fiasco Unwinds... Almost
April 30, 2008 - The Charles A. Beard Memorial School Corporation's seven-month refusal to allow one of its school board members to review four public records came to an end yesterday morning.
Board member Kevin Knott has confirmed that on Tuesday morning he was finally allowed to review the records he had first asked to see last September. Up until then, CAB had only allowed Knott to see redacted copies of the records that had significant portions blacked out, like copies given to The Banner in 2005.
"I went to the administrative office and thoroughly reviewed the records I first asked to see seven months ago," Knott told The Banner late Tuesday morning. "I spent two hours by myself in the boardroom reviewing them."
Although Knott asked to see the records last September, the administration did not extend to him the privilege of being the first to see them. The board's three officers - President Mike Fruth, Vice President Wade Beatty and Secretary Debi Ware - were allowed to see them Monday afternoon.
The four records are documents former Superintendent Hal Jester sent board members, including Fruth and Ware, in 2004 and 2005, before Knott, Beatty and three other current board members were in office. They are believed to address, in part, CAB finances, state audits, school security measures and tax matters, and are all records within the school board's discretion to release to the public.
The school board voted 5-1 at a meeting two weeks ago to review the records together as a board during a private executive session in May. That plan was dropped, however, after the state's public access counselor, Heather Neal, said it would be improper to review these particular records in an executive session because they are not records declared confidential by state or federal statute.
Jena Schmidt, CAB's public access officer, told The Banner last week that the decision not to hold an executive session came after interim Superintendent Ray Pavy spoke with Beatty and CAB's attorney. When contacted Monday, Schmidt said Pavy had told her to schedule Fruth, Beatty and Ware to look at the records first, with the other four being allowed to review them in pairs over the next two weeks.
When Knott contacted Schmidt late last week to schedule an appointment to review the records, he was told he would have to wait at least seven days after Fruth, Ware and Beatty reviewed them. The waiting period, he was told, was in order to comply with a state law that prohibits what are termed "serial meetings."
Neal told The Banner on Monday that CAB's plan to have the final four board members review the records in pairs would require the serial meeting law's seven-day waiting period between each gathering of board members. However, she said the waiting period would not apply if board members came in to review the records individually - something she has repeatedly said Knott and other board members have the right to do as elected officials.
Neal first told CAB last fall that she believed the school corporation was wrong to deny Knott's request to look at uncensored copies of the four records. Acting on the advice of the school corporation's attorney, however, the administration refused to make the records available to Knott.
Not content to wait another week to look at the records, Knott said he checked Monday with an attorney for the Indiana School Boards Association. He said that attorney confirmed what Neal said - that the serial meeting law's waiting period does not apply if board members go in one at a time to look at the records.
Knott said he phoned Pavy Monday, shared what he had learned from the ISBA's attorney and again asked to be permitted to review the records by himself this week. He said Pavy called him back about an hour later and told him he would be able to look at them Tuesday morning. Pavy told The Banner on Monday that it had been his idea to have Fruth, Ware and Beatty come in first, followed by the other four in pairs. He said he had misinterpreted the seven-day waiting period in the serial meeting law and thought it would also apply if board members came in individually.
Although glad to finally be able to see the records he asked to see last September, Knott said he didn't think his appointment to review them should have had to wait until after Fruth, Ware and Beatty looked at them.
"Because I requested those records seven months ago, I really believe that when I went into the central office last Friday, I should have been given an appointment to review them at that time," Knott said. "I believe all seven elected board members are on level ground and should have access to those records equally, and since no one else had scheduled an appointment yet, I should have been first."
Knott told The Banner that he was asked to sign a statement indicating the records he was reviewing would only be released if the board voted to approve that action. He said he had no problem with that and had signed the document.
"At this point, I'm going to digest everything I observed," Knott said. "Then, at some appropriate time in the future - the near future - I will most likely be coming forth with a recommendation."
Knott told The Banner that he remains committed to principles of open government and the free flow of communication between the board and citizens.
He said he thinks voters going to the polls May 6 for the CAB School Board election should keep in mind his seven-month fight to see these records, and elect board members who also support openness in government.
The remaining three board members, Ron Womack, Leah Kopp and Larry Selvidge, are, according to Schmidt, scheduled to review the records individually on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of this week. Fruth did not return a message The Banner left for him seeking comment on this story.
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