Appeals Court denies Sumner Schools request; deadline to fix public records policy is March 1

The Court of Appeals in Nashville today denied a request by Sumner County Schools to delay enforcement of a judge’s order to bring their public records policy into compliance with the law.

Todd Presnell, with Bradley Arrant Boult Cummings, representing the Sumner County School Board

Todd Presnell, with Bradley Arrant Boult Cummings, representing the Sumner County School Board

That means that the school district must update its policy, which Sumner County Judge Dee David Gay found to be in violation of the Tennessee Public Records Act, by March 1 or risk being held in contempt of court.

The Sumner School District has spent more than $113,000 fighting a lawsuit after it refused to let a citizen see a copy of its public records policy. The school district defended its actions, saying the citizen, Ken Jakes, made the request by email and its local policy prohibited accepting requests by email. Jakes also followed up his emailed request with a phone call.

After Judge Gay found that the school district violated the law, noting it would have been easy to simply email back a link to the policy which was on the school district’s website, he ordered Sumner Schools to adopt a policy that would comply with the Tennessee Public Records Act and gave them more than three months. He suggested accepting requests over its website or by phone.

Sumner Schools balked, saying it would cost more than $45,600 to accept public records requests over the phone because it would have to buy new servers. The same cost would be incurred to receive records requests over the web. And it would cost $22,500 annually to receive them by email, according to an affidavit filed by the school district’s assistant director for information services.

The school district argued it wanted to wait until the appeals process was done, and asked Judge Gay to delay enforcement of his order. When Judge Gay refused, they asked the appellate court.

The appellate court disagreed. “Having considered both the Board’s motion and the response filed (by) Kenneth L. Jakes, we find no grounds to reverse the trial court’s decision regarding the stay.”

The case has been ongoing for nearly two years, and is expected to last several months longer after the school board decided to appeal Gay’s ruling. Sumner Schools hired outside counsel, attorney Todd Presnell, to handle the legal defense. Its bills as of November had climbed to more than $113,000.

Kirk Clements with Haynes, Freeman & Bracey PLC of Goodlettsville, represents Ken Jakes.

Kirk Clements with Haynes, Freeman & Bracey PLC of Goodlettsville, represents Ken Jakes.

Jakes’ attorney, Kirk Clements, told The Standard of Hendersonville that he is skeptical that the school board will follow the judge’s order, saying he expected the school board’s leadership to keep with its effort to frustrate citizens and journalists who try to see the district’s public records and refuse to accept requests “through contemporary methods of communication.” (Read more at: School board’s emergency motion on open records lawsuit denied)

However, Presnell told The Tennessean the school board intended to comply with the judge’s order. From The Tennessean:

“The Sumner County Board of Education received the appellate court’s ruling denying the motion to stay implementation of the trial court’s judgment during the appeal,” Presnell, the board of education’s attorney, said in a statement Wednesday. “The board respects that decision and will comply with the trial court’s order.”

Presnell also told The Tennessean that it planned to review the legal invoices and give The Tennessean a new set after the newspaper complained that the school district over-redacted the invoices when it requested to see them, leaving out items such as the hourly rate and how much time was billed. From The Tennessean:

On Wednesday afternoon, Presnell sent a letter to Robb Harvey, the newspapers’ attorney, stating the board has agreed to “produce invoices with limited redaction” as a “good-faith effort to resolve this dispute.”

“It will, of course, take some time to review invoices covering a period of two years and make the necessary redactions,” Pressnell wrote, adding the board will work to produce the invoices on or before March 11.

Recently, the school board decided to end public comments at its meetings for non-agenda items. The decision came at the same meeting where a woman spoke out against the spending on the lawsuit.

Meanwhile, Beth Cox, the school board’s chair, recently defended the board’s decision to appeal the judge’s decision in a column printed in The Gallatin News. (Read it: Board chair defends school district’s ongoing litigation in open records suit.)

What do you think?