School board meets with lawyer

Friday, June 19, 2009

Tennessee state law on tenure for teachers and details of the state's open records law were the main topics of a meeting between the school board and their legal counsel.

It was anticipated that the school board's meeting Tuesday would be mostly an executive session, in other words, with no outsiders present.

In fact, the whole meeting was open to the public because no specific cases were discussed. Nashville attorney Chuck Cagle, a partner in Lewis, King, Krieg, & Waldrop, P.C, which represents over 70 boards of education, clarified details of both laws.

Cagle explained that the Education Improvement Act of 1992 had completely removed from school boards the power to make decisions on the hiring and firing of non-tenured teachers. That power was given to the directors of school systems by the 1992 act. The law further specifies that directors do not have to give a reason for not rehiring a teacher; the only thing they are required to do is give notice of non-rehire by April 15.

"It's the law of this state: we don't have to give reasons for non-renewal," Cagle said.

Furthermore, the director also has complete control over the re-hiring of support staff, but they don't have to be notified until June 15.

School boards are perfectly at liberty to hold hearings for non-rehired teachers, but Cagle emphasized that even if they believe the teacher should be re-hired, they have no power to make this happen.

"If a non-tenured teacher is evaluated should not be a surprise (when they're not re-hired)," said Cagle.

"We all want to live by the law," said board member Craig Michael, who went on to point out that the law used to be that women and African-Americans were not allowed to vote. "That was the law, but that doesn't mean it was right," Michael said.

Cagle also cleared up the question of whether an employee is under contract, even if they have not signed an actual contract every year.

"If you show up to work and accept a pay check - that creates a contract," he said, adding, "I recommend signing a contract every year."

On the question of the release of a former school bus driver Larry Barlar's medical records, Cagle said that this was not a HIPAA (Health Information Portability Accountability Act) violation, since health care providers, healthcare facilities, and sometimes insurers are the only entities bound by HIPAA.

"What about the consequences of the release of confidential information?" queried board member Curt Denton.

"A judge will say 'don't do that any more'," replied Cagle. "You would have to prove the release of information was done recklessly or maliciously for there to be any serious consequences."

On the subject of the open records act, Cagle admitted, "This is a complex statute." Tennessee has the most open law in the nation, he said, but there are many stipulations, and numerous costs involved. Barlar applied for copies of the personnel files of seven board of education employees, and got a letter from Cagle's law firm stating that the cost of preparing these records would be an estimated $674.09. This covers time spent removing personal details, like social security numbers, review of the papers by an attorney to make sure "all identifying information has been redacted," and time and supplies used making copies.

"I did consult at attorney," Barlar said. "He said not to talk to anybody, but I am not going to be quiet! I am going to be a major thorn in their sides, without resorting to libel or slander. I don't depend on the outcome of a lawsuit to survive; I just don't want to be done wrong."

Stan Curtis, director of schools, was absent from the meeting because he was at a conference, but those present included human resources director Mitchell Byrd, budget director Janet Wiles, administrative assistant Rhonda Poole keeping the minutes, and Marshall County Education Association members Kathy Stapleton, Wanda Odum and Lori Beardsley, as well as Barlar.