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The North Little Rock School District paid $22,626 for a six-month investigation into the district's pre-kindergarten program but won't release the law firm's resulting report, calling it a personnel record that is legally protected from public disclosure.

The district hired the Munson, Rowlett, Moore & Boone law firm of Little Rock to look into the program that serves just over 600 children, mostly 4-year-olds but also some infants and toddlers.

Mary Carol Young, an attorney with the firm, sent an itemized bill Aug. 8 for her work on the matter that started in early February. That was for 109.5 hours of her work at a rate of $195 an hour. There were also charges for expenses and three hours of work by another lawyer.

The investigation centered at least in part on whether high-level district staff members were appropriately allowed to enroll their children at no cost in the pre-kindergarten program for which the state has set family income and other eligibility requirements.

Questions about the enrollment practices in the district's pre-kindergarten program have been posed by district leaders in recent months to not only the Munson law firm but also to the North Little Rock Police Department and to the Arkansas Department of Human Services' Division of Child Care and Early Childhood Education, a review of records from the agencies show.

The Division of Child Care and Early Childhood Education, along with the Arkansas Board of Education, set policies and authorize state funding for the Arkansas Better Chance pre-kindergarten programs that are operated by traditional school districts, such as North Little Rock School District, and other organizations across the state.

The state agency division on June 6 sent a letter to Jody Veit Edrington, district administrator over the pre-kindergarten program, a response to her earlier request for an agency "review of a Pre-k matter regarding student enrollment."

"As per the review, the [division] has determined that you nor the North Little Rock School District has violated any ABC Rules or Regulations. We encourage ABC Programs to serve all children," Mary K. McKinney, then manager of the state's ABC program, wrote.

The ABC program is free to children who come from low-income families or who meet other criteria such as being a low-birth weight baby, or having a parent who was under 18 at the time of the child's birth or is without a high school diploma or equivalency certificate.

Families of children who do not meet the criteria can be charged tuition on a sliding scale depending on the family size and income. Full tuition is $486 a month for the program, according to the state rules.

Bobby Acklin, who became the North Little Rock district's interim superintendent in July following the School Board's buy-out of former Superintendent Kelly Rodgers, has repeatedly declined to release the Munson, Rowlett, Moore & Boone report on the program, citing legal advice given him by the school district's attorney, Jay Bequette of the Bequette and Billingsley law firm in Little Rock.

Acklin said he regretted not being able to publicly release the Munson report, which he indicated was an inch or more thick, but was not doing so because of legal advice given to him.

"It is clearly a personnel record," Bequette, an attorney for the district, said in a phone interview during which he cited the 23(c)(1) section of the state's Freedom of Information Act.

That provision exempts from public inspection "all employee evaluation or job performance records, including preliminary notes and other materials," until such time as there is a "final administrative resolution of any suspension or termination proceedings at which the records form a basis for the decision to suspend or terminate the employee."

But the state law also says that no request to inspect copies of public records shall be denied based on the grounds that exempt material is co-mingled with non-exempt information.

"Any reasonably segregable portion of a record shall be provided after deletion of the exempt information," the law says.

Bequette said redacting portions of the Munson report, which he said includes references to specific students as well as to personnel job performance, was not practical.

"It would be almost completely redacted," he said "The entire report is about the performance of personnel. You would have to redact the entire report."

Bequette's law firm has also been paid for work in regard to the district's ABC prekindergarten. A bill from his firm to the district includes references to ABC, but names in the bill have been redacted.

Acklin said in an interview that he had stopped the district's practice of allowing employees to enroll their children at no cost in the pre-kindergarten program-- even if there are seats available for them.

He said that there have been as many as 10 seats per year available in recent years.

"If there wasn't anybody on the waiting list, then it was okay. It wasn't breaking a rule to do that, and she's done it," Acklin said, referring to the district's long-time pre-school coordinator.

"The main reason I stopped that this year," Acklin said, "was because we haven't given her any policies or guidelines to work with on that. She was kind of out there on her own, doing it. I didn't want her out there by herself like that. She needs some rules and some guidelines to go by. We're working on them now."

Veit Edrington answered questions about the number of ABC classrooms and their locations but declined to comment on the Munson report.

In all, questions were raised about the eligibility of four families and with five children, Acklin said, adding that the district's finance staff is looking into whether participation in the program on a tuition-free basis must be considered income for the employees, who included a principal and a central office administrator.

"Our finance people are working with our auditors to give me some advice on what we need to do," Acklin said. "They may have to pay some taxes," he said about the employees.

Acklin said the Munson report did not reveal any surprises to him.

"We can't detect anything criminal or anything like that," he said. "But we probably should have had some guidelines. The report mentions we didn't have any. There were no heavy, heavy recommendations -- but said there were things that needed to be addressed and needed to be clear to the public about what is going on."

"Like I said, I didn't really see anything that heavy, you know, firing anybody or anything like that. [The law firm] gathered information that we could have gathered easier, quicker and cheaper," said Acklin, who came into the issue midstream. "The publicity kind of got out of hand," he said.

Rodgers, the former superintendent, and Beth Shumate, the district's former deputy superintendent, were involved in the issue of the pre-kindergarten enrollment before they left the district's employment at the end of June.

On June 14, Rodgers wrote to North Little Rock Police Chief Mike Davis to recap a meeting that he, Shumate, Davis and others had had on the topic June 6.

"As I informed you, the district received information in February of this year that our preschool program may have been operating in violation of state and federal regulations by allowing children of staff members, who did not qualify for the program, to attend the program free of charge," Rodgers wrote to Davis.

Davis wrote back on June 21: "We were not provided with any evidence of criminal activity during this meeting," he said. "However, you did mention the possibility of ethical violations regulated by state law. It is, therefore, our recommendation that district officials contact the Arkansas Ethics Commission regarding those possible violations."

Davis further recommended that the school district's attorney be asked to provide the Police Department with investigative reports about the pre-school program.

"I would also suggest that school officials consider contacting the Pulaski County prosecutor's office complaints division to determine if further action is warranted," Davis wrote to Rodgers.

A Section on 09/12/2018

Print Headline: North Little Rock district paid for report on pre-K, but it says data legally protected from disclosure

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