Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Sperry school board member's resignation letter criticizes superintendent, district's legal counsel for lack of openness with public

Derrell Morrow's abrupt resignation from the Sperry school board came with some harsh words for Superintendent Brian Beagles and the district's legal counsel, Rosenstein, Fist & Ringold of Tulsa.
"I believed, mistakenly, that our current superintendent was up to the challenge of leading our district in the effort to help educate our children in this challenging world. Our district deserves better leadership," Morrow wrote in a resignation letter dated Aug. 13.
"In my opinion, the board is legally liable for the actions by the administration and is placed in a precarious position because of such," Morrow wrote.
He said several public records requests had "not been dealt with in a diligent and legal manner" by the superintendent because of advice from the law firm.
"I do not understand why there should be such intransigence on the part of the board and administration," Morrow wrote. "As a public entity our school has to be accountable to the taxpayers of our district. The public has a right to know how its money is being spent."
This past spring, Beagles refused to release the board's agenda packets to the public until the day after meetings. Beagles told Neighbor News he understood from consultations with Doug Mann of Rosenstein, Fist & Ringold that the district was not required to release the agenda packets prior to meetings.
Then he said the law firm advised him that the district didn't have to respond to standing requests for agenda packets or other documents, such as the monthly billings from Rosenstein, Fist & Ringold.
Neighbor News filed a complaint with the Tulsa County District Attorney's Office, which persuaded Beagles to make the agenda packets available online by 1 p.m. on meeting days.
At the time, Beagles wouldn't clarify whether the district would continue requiring requesters to make appointments to view other public records. But the head of the DA's Civil Division told the newspaper chain, "I don’t think an appointment is required to inspect documents."
Morrow was critical of the district's use of Rosenstein, Fist & Ringold.
"In my opinion, said firm does not represent the best interest of our district but rather that of the firm," Morrow wrote. "Not only has our board voted to employ this firm but has approved substantial blanket purchase orders to the same."
He noted that "the board majority and superintendent are taking direction from a law firm that the Tulsa County District Attorney and the Grand Jury strongly recommended to Skiatook Schools that they no longer employ."
In 2010, a Tulsa County grand jury report said it would "serve the best interests of the district and community to hire a new attorney who can assist the board in being more open and communicative to the public."
Rosenstein, Fist & Ringold has given school districts other advice that seems contrary to the state Open Records Act.
In December, the law firm said a Stillwater parent would have to pay a search fee to read the emails, text messages and other correspondence of a school district committee that proposed a controversial school year calendar.
In June 2010, another school district represented by Rosenstein, Fist & Ringold tried to charge a $90 search fee for copies of the district's itemized legal bills.
The Broken Arrow Public Schools superintendent at the time considered the records request to be "an excessive disruption of the business of the school" because an attorney with the firm charged the district for the three hours to redact exempted information from 17 legal bills submitted during a seven-month period.
Morrow wasn't a newcomer to government. He had served as a Sperry town trustee for seven years before being elected to the school board in 2008.
As a school board candidate, he said a commitment to "openness, independent thought, accountability" were among the chief responsibilities of a school board member.
Unfortunately, he wasn't able to persuade Beagles and other board members to adopt that commitment.

Joey Senat, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
OSU School of Media & Strategic Communications
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the commentators and do not necessarily represent the position of FOI Oklahoma Inc., its staff, or its board of directors. Differing interpretations of open government law and policy are welcome.

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