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UPDATE: Public access disputed during superintendent interviews

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HAMILTON COUNTY, TN (WRCB) -

The second of five superintendent finalists is visiting Hamilton County today and the visit is open to reporters after confusion over media access to the first candidate interview process.

On Monday, Dr. Wayne Johnson visited schools, met with elected officials and participated in a public meeting as part of his in-person interview for the schools' superintendent position.

Officials with the school system attempted to limit access to those meetings and repeatedly denied entry to portions of the interview process until the attorney for the school board and a state representative spoke up.

The Executive Assistant to the Hamilton County School Board, Sherrie Ford, sent out an agenda for Monday’s visit, including a “site visit itinerary."

When Channel 3 attempted to coordinate coverage of those events, the school system’s spokesperson, Amy Katcher, told Channel 3 the meetings were closed to reporters and the public, despite there being two or more Hamilton County School Board members in attendance. Katcher referred to guidance from Ford on which portions would be open to the media.

"Sherrie informed me that only the 4:30-5:30 pm meet and greet and the 6-7:30 pm interviews are open to the media," wrote Katcher in an email to Channel 3.

That exclusion contradicts Tennessee’s Open Meetings Law, or Sunshine Law. That law ensures when two or more members of a body, like a school board, are together the public has the right to know what they discuss.

School Board Chairman Dr. Steve Highlander and School Board Attorney Scott Bennett agreed that the media should have access to the day’s events and Channel 3 was granted access to meetings between Johnson, elected officials and stakeholders. But when Channel 3 arrived at those meetings the Executive Assistant to the Board, Sherrie Ford, restricted access, moving the group meeting inside the boardroom across the room to make it more difficult to hear what was being said. Channel 3 was rolling as she suggested to the group, “Y'all want to move your seats up here a little bit,” motioning to the front of the room. Ford then told Channel 3 microphones were not allowed in the meeting, but could not cite what law she was using to make that determination.

State Representative Mike Carter was a part of that meeting and spoke up in defense of reporters in attendance, saying the meeting needed to be open.

Then following Johnson’s meet and greet with the public, Channel 3 was once again denied access to the candidate. Johnson agreed to be interviewed by Channel 3 and other media outlets. As that interview began, Sherrie Ford intervened, leading Johnson away from reporters and telling him, “you don’t have to talk to them."

Johnson told Channel 3 he’d be happy to speak with the media about the process if he is hired.

"I think it was just a simple misunderstanding," Dr. Steve Highlander told Channel 3 on Tuesday.

"We certainly want media there," said Highlander, who is leading up the superintendent interview process.

"We want coverage and we appreciate the coverage, but at the same time when they have a set time for meet and greet folks, we want them to have their time uninterrupted by anyone else."

Katcher tells Channel 3 the interview process is handled by the Hamilton County School Board and Ford. She says the communication coordinator, the position she currently fills, is not a part of deciding how to handle or coordinate superintendent interviews.

"I would direct you to Dr. Highlander," said Katcher, when asked about Monday's chain of events.

"Hamilton County Department of Education has nothing to do with the superintendent search," said Katcher. "The board does the hiring, the interviewing and the setting up of the locations," she added. 

READ MORE | UPDATE: Hamilton Co. school board members select top 5 applicants for superintendent

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