Ain't No Sunshine: Media locked out of TN Education meeting - WRCBtv.com | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

Rick Smith: School meeting media lockout "partly my fault"

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UPDATED TUES. FEB. 21, 6:00 P.M.

CHATTANOOGA (WRCB)- Hamilton County Supt. Rick Smith says, "I just want to move on," but takes partial responsibility for excluding the media from a Feb. 16 School Board meeting with State Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman.

The decision was roundly criticized by advocates of Tennessee's Open Meeting Law, which requires elected officials to allow public and media access to meetings of two or more members.  Seven of the nine School Board members participated in the meeting, along with selected school district administrators, principals, and community leaders.

In an interview with Eyewitness News, Smith, who had failed to respond to queries about the event for several days afterward, said, "You know, that situation last week...I'm glad the Commissioner took time to meet with the School Board.  As for the poor communication, part of that was probably my fault, part of it was (state department spokesperson) Kelli Gauthier's fault.  The bottom line is, I'm ready to move on.  We have some important issues like rezoning we need to deal with."

Gauthier, a former reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press was the person who actually closed the door on members of the media, including the reporter who eventually replaced her on the education beat for the newspaper.  In several e-mail exchanges, and one telephone interview with Eyewitness News, she placed full responsibility for the decision on Superintendent Smith.  She wrote, "Hamilton County is the governing body that called the meeting and any follow up should be referred to them.  The Commissioner (Kevin Huffman) did not request the meeting to be closed."

She did not respond to a follow-up question as to whether she was following Superintendent Smith's order to close the door as the meeting began, with reporters waiting outside.  The meeting was held to discuss a new "Innovation Zone" proposal for the state's larger school districts to request grant money.

Six days prior to the meeting, reporters had been invited to the event by the School Board's secretary.  Several Board members said after the meeting that media should have been present.

PREVIOUS STORY FROM FEBRUARY 18:

CHATTANOOGA (WRCB)- Despite a meeting notice sent to local media six days in advance, reporters were greeted by a closed door when Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman met with Hamilton County School Board members on Thursday.

Huffman, who had just addressed the Chattanooga Downtown Rotary Club, spent a few minutes responding to reporters' questions, and was then escorted to a meeting room at the Chattanooga Convention Center.  It's what happened a few minutes later that has sparked outrage from some School Board members, parents and the head of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.  Kent Flanagan told Eyewitness News, "No one wants to take responsibility for closing the door on what should have been an open meeting."

As reporters followed Commissioner Huffman to the meeting area, a voice inside the room was heard to ask, "Is the media allowed in here?"  Hamilton County Superintendent Rick Smith responded firmly, "No."  When a reporter asked, "Why not?" Smith declined to answer and kept walking.

Huffman's spokesperson, Kelli Gauthier stood by the door, responding to a newspaper reporter's question about the state's Open Meetings Law by saying, "It's a planning session about an upcoming grant."  She then closed the door as reporters stood outside the room.  Seven members of the nine-person School Board were present for the meeting.  Only Chip Baker and Rhonda Thurman were absent.   Several school district administrators and a handful of principals were also observed entering the meeting room.

In Huffman's speech to Rotary Club members earlier in the day, he briefly mentioned the topic of the meeting, giving no indication that it would be held out of public view.  He referred to "The Innovation Zone," which he described as a way to help lower-performing schools.  He expressed hope that Hamilton County would apply for a grant to fund the program.  In previous interviews, he had indicated that the "Innovation Zone" could give struggling schools flexibility on how they are operated.  The schools could run on a different calendar and offer additional money to teachers in hard-to-staff areas.  Schools such as Howard School for Academics and Technology would be immediately affected, and other low-income schools such as Brainerd High, Dalewood Middle and Woodmore Elementary were reportedly mentioned in the meeting by District 5 Board member Jeffrey Wilson.  But that is second-hand information, since reporters were not allowed inside.

Contacted after the meeting, Wilson was asked why media members were excluded.  "That would be a good question for the superintendent," he replied.  Board chair Mike Evatt told Eyewitness News that "I was told by Rick Smith that Commissioner Huffman made the call.  He said we didn't need any media in the meeting."  However, Huffman's spokesperson Gauthier told Eyewitness News late Friday that Rick Smith made the decision to close the meeting. 

That story was immediately shot down by School Board Attorney Scott Bennett, who issued this statement after conferring with Superintendent Smith: "It is the practice of Hamilton County Schools that all Board meetings are open to the public and to the media. The only exclusions are executive session meetings which may include pending or threatened litigation.  The fact that we invited the media to this work session speaks for itself."

In fact, on February 10, area news media outlets received this notice from School Board secretary Ann Bates:  "Immediately following the Rotary meeting, the Board members will meet in work session at 1:00 p.m. in the Rebman Room also at the Chattanooga Convention and Trade Center to discuss the State's Innovation Zone (I-Zone) concept with the Commissioner."  There was no indication of a media blackout, and such meeting notices are routinely sent prior to work sessions and Board meetings.

In a recent editorial, the Knoxville News-Sentinel railed against elected officials who conduct closed-door meetings.  "The public's business should be conducted in public," the editorial states. "That's a principle our public servants must affirm."

Most Board members we contacted Friday seem to agree.  District 8 Board member David Testerman said, "I couldn't understand why no reporters were there.  I saw several outside the room, and if I'd known you were locked out, I'd have said something." 

District 6 Board member Joe Galloway expressed surprise.  "I thought it was open to the media," Galloway said.  Everett Fairchild, who represents District 3, said, "I can't figure out why they would want to keep you (the media) out.  We didn't talk about anything top secret in there."

Testerman concluded, "This kind of stuff can give us a bad name.  We shouldn't be discussing school issues in a closed room.  I don't know who gave the order, but it was a bad decision."

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