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Fayetteville schools took too long to reply to FOIA request, judge rules

by Ron Wood | September 9, 2021 at 7:29 a.m.
FILE PHOTO The Fayetteville Public Schools McClinton Administration Building.

FAYETTEVILLE -- A judge ruled Wednesday afternoon that the Fayetteville School District provided the documents requested in a Freedom of Information Act request but didn't do it in a timely manner and was, technically, in violation of the act.

Washington County Circuit Judge Mark Lindsay awarded attorney fees and expenses in an amount to be determined, but he noted that the sides probably could have worked out their differences without a lawsuit being filed.

"Y'all apparently did not get together and talk," Lindsay said while making his ruling from the bench. "I really wish for everybody's sake that you had sat down at a table and talked about this."

The school district turned over more than 10,000 pages of documents to Ila Campbell, but not within three days as is required by law, Lindsay said. He said it's important that the three-day period to respond be respected. Lindsay said it took the filing of the lawsuit for Campbell to get the majority of the requested documents.

Lindsay didn't require the district to provide anything more to Campbell under her request.

Joey McCutchen and Chip Sexton, both of Fort Smith, filed the lawsuit in Washington County Circuit Court on June 25 on behalf of Campbell, a Fayetteville resident.

The lawsuit was filed after two separate Freedom of Information Act requests to the school district that sought, in part, the district's equity plan, documentation regarding Critical Race Theory, LGBTQ policies and gender support plans, use of the word "Christmas," and the Converge Social Justice Consulting Firm, according to McCutchen and Sexton.

The lawsuit was filed after the district refused to respond to six clearly identified items, they said.

The district argued that Campbell's record requests weren't sufficiently specific to enable the custodian to locate the records with reasonable effort as is required by the law. They said Campbell's request would have involved reviewing more than 600,000 documents or emails.

The original request was filed May 17. The request was for all emails, internal memos, notes or other communications to and from district employees and School Board members discussing the requested topics.

The request also sought all emails to or from any district employees or board members and any member of the Fayetteville City Council or the Fayetteville mayor's office.

It sought all documents, memos, emails or other written communications generated or created by, sent to or otherwise mentioning the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville's IDEALS Institute and all contracts, agreements or memoranda of understanding between the district and the Converge Social Justice Consulting Firm. IDEALS stands for inclusion, diversity, equity, access, leadership development and strategic supports, according to a UA website.

The request also sought all contracts, agreements or memoranda of understanding between the district and TRUE NW Arkansas Train, which the lawsuit says was developed by the Walton Family Foundation, Walmart and the Arkansas Community Foundation.

TRUE stands for train, report, uplift and engage, according to the group's website.

The school district asked that the request be narrowed to include only the district leadership team.

A second Freedom of Information Act request was filed June 10.


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