The passage of years has steadily drained my tiny brain of a respectable memory. Even at that, I doubt I'd forget to honor a court order directing me to achieve a task by a certain date.
Unfortunately, that's what happened to the Huntsville School Board earlier this month when it failed to complete a Freedom of Information Act training course within 60 days, as ordered by Circuit Judge Doug Martin.
Ellen Kreth, publisher of the weekly Madison County Record, contacted the district on Feb. 14 to inquire about the training and was told by superintendent Audra Kimball that her administration didn't know of the court's deadline, despite that Martin's order had been signed and "filed for record" two months before, on Dec. 15, 2021.
Kreth said Kimball told her, "We will be getting it set up as quickly as we can," after being alerted to the potential court-order violation. "I will get with our attorney and go over that very quickly."
Late on the afternoon of Feb. 14, Kimball emailed board members and The Record that FOIA training had been scheduled immediately after the next board meeting, which is what occurred.
The district's attorney, Charles Harwell (who represented the district in the FOIA lawsuit), conducted the training that lasted less than an hour. Harwell began the training session by acknowledging that the board was not in compliance with the court's timeline. "I'm going to take the blame for the fact that we pulled this together today," Harwell said at the meeting.
Benjamin Rightsell sued the district and the board last summer, alleging it had violated FOIA on several occasions.
The board admitted to multiple FOIA violations by holding special meetings throughout the year without contacting the press; by not recording those meetings; by conducting school business through text messages rather than in public; and by attending training sessions without contacting the press and without recording those meetings, according to Kreth's story.
Fort Smith Attorney Joey McCutchen, who represents Rightsell, said, "I think the importance in complying with the court order in this regard is paramount. They've obviously violated FOIA on numerous occasions and they need training. And every day that goes by that they don't receive training is a day that there could be more potential violations of the Freedom of Information Act."
Told the board had not held its training session within the court-prescribed 60 days, McCutchen said that its convening that session soon after being alerted to the deadline mitigates the problem somewhat.
"But you just don't violate court orders," he said. "You just don't do it. If the court tells you to do it in 60 days, you do it within 60 days, period."
The agreed-upon order, in addition to mandated training, enjoined the board from further FOIA violations.
In another matter involving Kimball, the board voted to extend her contract through June 2025, thereby setting aside concerns over an ongoing criminal investigation into the manner in which she and board members handled widely publicized sexual-assault allegations by members of the junior high basketball team.
Kreth and Jamie Smith reported that an investigation continues into Kimball's failure to contact the Arkansas Child Abuse Hotline in a timely fashion after becoming aware of the allegations.
Arkansas law requires school administrators and teachers to call the hotline immediately if they suspect child maltreatment. "Kimball learned of the allegations in early February but has declined to say when she called the hotline. Sources have stated it was not called until March," the Record's account said.
Kimball's contract provides a salary of $123,933 for 245 days, a cell phone, dues for memberships to professional organizations, travel to and from meetings, and the use of a vehicle for business and personal use, as well as all expenses incurred for the district's vehicle.
The Record story noted that, currently, Kimball is certified as a building-level administrator, the equivalent of a principal, rather than superintendent. However, the Arkansas Department of Education granted an Alternative Learning Plan (APL) Waiver, which allows her to serve in a superintendent's capacity. Kimball was granted an ALP on Jan. 2, 2020, and renewals in August 2020 and August 2021. State law requires that she complete her hours for certification within three years, by Jan. 2, 2023.
My hope for the good people of Madison County after months of turmoil is they finally get their headline-grabbing school district's woes resolved by the beginning of the next school year, and that Kreth continues to serve as a resolute and effective watchdog for her community, the way every city's newspaper staff should.
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at [email protected]