Sunshine Law expert says Hawkins likely in violation over Keplar vote

Jeff Bobo • Jul 16, 2019 at 10:51 AM

ROGERSVILLE – The Hawkins County Board of Education agenda for July 11 made no mention of eliminating Keplar Elementary's fourth and fifth grades, or busing those 38 students to Hawkins Elementary when the school year begins Aug. 5.

Affected parents had no idea that issue would be discussed or voted on Thursday evening, and as a result, didn't attend the meeting in Rogersville to voice their opinions.

In the past when the BOE has held discussion about the possibility of closing Keplar, the BOE meeting room in Rogersville has been filled with protesters — parents and students — who are passionate about keeping their school open.

Tammy Lyons, whose fifth-grade daughter is among the 38 Keplar students being transferred to Hawkins Elementary, told the Times-News Friday she believes Thursday’s agenda was kept vague so the board could discuss proposed changes without interference from protesters.

Lyons told the Times News Friday she intends on investigating whether the BOE's agenda violated its own policies, or violated the Tennessee Open Meetings Act, or “Sunshine Law” as it’s better known.

As for the latter, one Tennessee Sunshine Law expert told the Times-News Monday a strong case for a violation could be made.

Deborah Fisher is the executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, a non-profit organization formed in 2003 to preserve, protect and improve citizen access to public information and open government in Tennessee.

The BOE agenda posted on the county school website listed only the name of the director of schools “Matt Hixson” in the reports section when the elimination of Keplar's 4th and 5th grades was discussed.

A revised agenda handed out prior to the meeting changed that listing on the agenda to “Matt Hixson – Class collapse/closure”, but no version of the agenda mentioned Keplar as a candidate for classroom closure.

“Deciding to bus two grades of an elementary school across the county to another elementary school, for the people it affects, would be a very big deal,” Fisher said. “There's no question that you couldn't look at that agenda item, even the later revised agenda, and be able to discern what that was about, unless this had been a continuing recent conversation about that topic. If the online agenda is the one parents usually look at, then to me the parents didn't have any notice. In this situation it seems pretty unfair.”

The Times-News reached out to Hixson, Monday, regarding questions that have been raised about pubic notice for Thursday's meeting and the legality of Thursday's agenda.

“I named class collapse under my report,” Hixson said. “I felt it was properly Sunshined. Due to the late commission meeting and (funding cut) decision, we looked at all available staffing decisions and class collapses. We literally identified KES as the most viable option just prior to the meeting. As you could tell, the first time the board heard of the idea was at the meeting.”

The only way to “prosecute” an alleged violation is for a citizen to file a lawsuit.

If a judge determines that a Sunshine Law violation took place, the vote which arose out of the illegal public notice could be voided.

In this case, that would be the BOE's 5-1 vote Thursday to relocate Keplar's 4th and 5th graders to Hawkins Elementary.

“I think there would definitely be a question on whether that notice was adequate because it was an issue of pervasive importance to the people whose children attend that rural elementary school,” Fisher said. “It was a major change for them, and for their children, and yet the notice that was posted online had nothing on there about any changes to their elementary school, or in fact, any changes to any elementary school.”

Fisher added, “I would definitely think there's a question here about whether that notice complies with the Open Meetings Act. If I was a parent I would be really upset. Having your kids rezoned is of major importance to parents, and to have zero information on a school board agenda definitely seems to be in conflict with the Open meetings Act, and the requirements of adequate notice of a meeting.”

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