News analysis: Broken Arrow district waives open records fee

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published: 01-Jul-2010

Jarod Mendenhall, the new superintendent of the Broken Arrow public schools, has waived an unusual fee which his sometimes controversial predecessor had imposed on a former district parent who sought public records concerning legal fees in the school system.

While not the only source of controversy in Broken Arrow, one of Oklahoma’s largest public school systems, legal fees paid to the district’s cadre of attorneys have been among spending practices coming under increasingly critical scrutiny from citizen-watchdogs. Federal, state and local officials are known to be investigating spending and other issues in the district.

Dr. Gary Gerber, Broken Arrow schools superintendent until this week, had imposed on Beth Snellgrove a $90 fee for redacting itemized legal bills. Snellgrove is a former Broken Arrow school parent and taxpayer who has closely monitored school board meetings and district expenditures over the past three years. Just days ago, she had decided not to retrieve the materials because of the fee Gerber had imposed.

In a recent Broken Arrow Ledger news story, Dr. Gerber had speculated that Snellgrove’s motives for the request raised eyebrows, “as it came after the Sperry School District hired Ms. Snellgrove’s husband for what, I understood, to be a newly created position at Sperry. You will have to decide if this is reflecting a personal interest on her part rather than a public interest.”

The superintendent of Sperry Public Schools, Dr. Jim Sisney, was Gerber’s predecessor as superintendent in Broken Arrow. Sisney first raised many of the concerns about district spending that ultimately triggered a state audit of the system’s spending habits.

In recent days, before Mendenhall’s reversal of the redaction fee, Snellgrove attracted a strong defense from a leading advocate of open government, Dr. Joey Senat of Oklahoma State University. On the Freedom of Information (FOI) Oklahoma blog, Senate, describing views shared with the Broken Arrow paper, said the fact that Ms. Snellgrove’s husband worked for another school  district “would have no bearing on her status as a taxpayer and parent of children in Broken Arrow schools in making sure that district officials ‘are honestly, faithfully, and competently performing their duties as public servants.’”

Dr. Senat said, “I asked Mr. Gerber twice if he considered the release of the itemized legal bills to be in the public interest. He wouldn’t answer the question. To say it’s not in the public interest would be idiotic and reveal him to be a petty bureaucrat. To say it is would be acknowledging that he couldn’t charge the search fee.

“Mr. Gerber’s comments indicate he is charging the search fee because he has a personal grudge against Ms. Snellgrove rather than legitimate reasons under the state Open Records law.

“Mr. Gerber’s response to this request leaves me wondering how other people are treated when they ask the Broken Arrow school district for information that belongs to them – the public. By waiving the fee, Mendenhall has taken a step in the right direction on what I suspect will be a long road to true transparency for Broken Arrow public schools.”

William Swaim, executive editor of The Broken Arrow Ledger, expressed his views in an online editorial posted yesterday — just hours before Mendenhall reversed Gerber’s edict. Swaim said Gerber’s “decision to charge does nothing to promote openness and transparency from a school district that has been mired in controversy the last few years. It makes it that much harder for the average taxpayer to make a legitimate request — in fact, it’s a deterrent.

“It’s also a direct contradiction to the release of similar records to Chris Tharp and Broken Arrow Parents for Truth, in which no fee was charged. …  What those documents found, according to Tharp, was the amount spent by the school district on legal fees rose from $8,500 in fiscal year 2007-08 to more than $200,000 in 2008-09.

“Something tells me if you have an increase in expenses like that, well, it is hard to argue that it is not in the public’s best interest to know.”

Early last month, The Tulsa World newspaper said in an editorial that paying departing superintendent Gerber a $14,000 bonus on top of his $140,000 base salary was “unseemly and ill-timed. When he took over the school district, it was troubled. The school board had fired Superintendent Jim Sisney, a difficult and divisive action. The aftershocks of that issue continue to this day.”

The bonus to Gerber came as he prepared to leave the job, after raising ideas to trim $3.57 million from the budget, with possible cuts to include salary freezes, furloughs and 10 fewer teaching positions.

The World opined that a potential “hit” of that much to the district’s core mission “makes it unacceptable” to hand out bonuses. The World concluded, “The bonus might reflect the board’s belief that the district has come through the storm and is expecting calmer waters, but we have bad news for them: The bonus has become part of the storm.”

Although internal battles among board members and Broken Arrow district staff apparently go back many years, public turmoil emerged in the fall of 2008, when Dr. Sisney, then the district superintendent, was dismissed by a narrow majority of the local board of education.

Sisney had developed a reputation as a no-nonsense administrator bringing business-like acumen to public school finance, spending and governance. Before he was dismissed, Superintendent Sisney had prepared an engagement letter for an independent audit of the Broken Arrow schools.

In that letter, Dr. Sisney had specified the audit should examine competitive bidding procedures, to include bid-splitting (a common tactic to avoid competitive bidding thresholds).

After Sisney’s removal, however, the bid-splitting language was not included in a new version of the engagement letter. At the time, Sisney’s interim replacement, Dr. Gerber, said the prior letter had not been approved by board members. However, Gerber did not point out several changes in items for focus in the audit engagement letter.

Among matters now under investigation is the district’s long relationship with Air Assurance, a contractor which has done hundreds of thousands of dollars in work for the Broken Arrow schools.

Sources with direct knowledge of the investigation have told CapitolBeatOK that excessive or unnecessary expenditures in the system for a period of several years in this decade total more than $3 million.

In early May, investigators took possession of computers and other records from the district. As July begins, there are as-yet unconfirmed reports that new subpoenas are likely, and that they will be aimed at district employees.