The Rutherford County Board of Education lost another round against parent Tracy Pack in court proceedings Wednesday, resulting in a more than $30,000 legal bill to taxpayers.
Pack filed a Tennessee Public Records Act request more than three years ago seeking copies of checks written by former principal Chontel Bridgeman on a Homer Pittard Campus School checking account.
"I just wanted to know whether county funds were being spent properly," Pack said Wednesday after winning the final round in a lengthy court battle. "This all started because I just wanted to see how she was spending these funds."
As part of the Tennessee Public Records Act, citizens are given the right to request copies of government documents such as financial records, and receive them within seven days of the request.
Pack filed the request on Sept. 3, 2010, but what happened next prompted him to hire local attorney Theodore Goodman and begin the lengthy court process.
The Board of Education produced an incomplete series of checks, out of sequence, with all signatures removed, after more than three weeks had passed.
Upon further inquiry, Pack and his attorney were told that no more checks existed, but more checks were produced after Pack filed suit in Rutherford County Chancery Court, including voided and altered checks with all signatures again removed.
Suspicious of the board’s actions, Pack requested copies of emails sent by Bridgeman on school computers and the contents of files that resided on her school laptop, including files that concerned his son Madden, who was a student at Campus School at the time.
Pack was told repeatedly that such files never existed or were deleted and that such emails were private, but Chancellor Robert Corlew III disagreed and laid out a process by which the documents would be discovered and given to Pack, under court authority with the help of a computer forensics expert.
Documents given to Pack as part of that process were actually used by his attorney Wednesday as evidence of the Board's attempts to conceal public records and frustrate the process.
"I am not sending the contents of the Madden Pack files at this point," read an email from board Attorney Angel McCloud to Bridgeman on Jan. 14, 2011, months after Pack had been told repeatedly that the files did not exist.
A file was attached to that email named "madden_pack.zip", totaling more than 45 kilobytes of digital information.
McCloud later testified under oath on Jan. 25 that the files did not exist.
Jeff Sandvig, Assistant Superintendent of Schools in charge of Budget and Finance, testified concerning an email he sent to Bridgeman requesting "33 checks" for purposes of honoring Pack's request.
To date, Pack has received only 32 checks, including four voided checks, from the account, and Sandvig stated that it was a clerical error on his part to suggest that an additional check exists.
However, Sandvig also testified that he never saw the check register or the physical checks at that time, having arrived at a count of 33 from those checks that had actually cleared the bank and were listed in the account statement.
Goodman seized upon this in closing arguments, noting that voided checks would never be seen on an account statement, so Sandvig's count of 33 checks was not simply a difference of only one check but possibly as much as five cleared checks that had not been produced by the board.
Corlew listened intently and quickly reviewed the email again during Goodman's arguments, seemingly interested in that fact.
He then ruled that the Board of Education had been slow in producing requested documents, forcing Pack to hire counsel, and therefore Pack was entitled to reimbursement by the board for his legal fees under the Tennessee Public Records Act.
In total, Corlew ruled Pack is owed just over $31,000 in attorney fees, but denied Pack's request to be reimbursed for his own time in the process, which is also a provision of the Tennessee Public Records Act at the court's discretion.
The ruling is quite rare in Tennessee Public Records Act cases, according to Frank Gibson, former Director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.
"Only two or three such awards have occurred across the state over the past few years," he said. "Either courts are becoming more serious about enforcing the Tennessee Public Records Act, or governments are becoming more careless in their compliance with the Act."
For his part, Goodman saw the case as a triumph for citizens who seek oversight of their government.
"This case is much larger than Dr. Pack or the Board: this case is about the fundamental principles of our democracy." He stated in a memo to the court. "A government allowed to operate in secret is dangerous to democracy because its citizens cannot oversee their public officials."
Goodman went on to say that if the court had not awarded Pack his legal fees, then "the board and all other government agencies would learn a dangerous lesson: that they can use the citizens' own resources against them to obstruct their access to public records, and only those rare citizens with the resources and the tenacity to pursue records with full-blown legal action will have access to records about our government. That is not a democracy."
He was pleased with the ruling but suggested further action is needed.
"I believe it is time for some personnel changes within the Rutherford County Board of Education," he said.
When asked whether the Board of Education had learned any lessons from the process and the final outcome Wednesday, Board Spokesman James Evans answered briefly.
"I can't say," he responded.
Bridgeman was demoted and reassigned to another school for the 2013-2014 school year, but has yet to begin work in her new capacity.
She is currently on paid medical leave.