Sheridan County School District 2 Superintendent Craig Dougherty reassured The Press in February that the district’s administration and staff always have and always will return media phone calls seeking information.
Yet, The Sheridan Press received notice from the district’s attorney that — per district policy that has been in place for years, but never enforced — our requests for public information should now be funneled through the district’s human resources coordinator, Cody Sinclair. In essence, we shouldn’t bother its staff and make requests more specific.
This action by the school district is petty retribution for adverse news coverage and another attempt to control public information.
Here’s the nut of the story: the school district’s leadership got caught in a whopper in February. Time and again, they insisted their plan to build a $45 million recreation center was 10 or more years in the future. When in fact, there was planning which included the expenditure of $17,000 for a market analysis, site plans, even a consultant’s judgment on whether a bond referendum would fly with SCSD2 voters.
John Knapp of Knapp Architecture Design Development in Boulder, Colo., summed it up in a March 4, 2013, memo to the school district, stating the market analysis showed that the project “proposal is not supportable” and needs “secondary and tertiary” assessment to make it feasible. The market analysis said the facility could operate at a $700,000 to $1.7 million annual loss. Yet in a March 22, 2013, email, Dougherty said the district was looking at a May 2014 bond initiative election.
The Press didn’t go looking for this fight. SCSD2 chairman Richard Bridger told more than 100 local business and education leaders who convened at Sheridan College on Jan. 27 that the project was coming. The Press researched two years of school board meeting minutes and found no mention of this project. A $45 million community recreation center financed with public money? With a public vote? Did they really think that no one would ask hard questions? On Feb. 5, Dougherty told the Press how the school board needed to consider “the best way to get the community informed so there is the right information out there.” Managed information always has an odor, and not a good one.
On Feb. 12, The Press initiated a case asking the courts to determine if these meetings were afoul of Wyoming law. The county attorney is also investigating whether a case should be pursued against the district for withholding public documents. According to Wyoming law, a civil penalty of up to $750 per incident could be levied against school board members and school officials.
Recently, counsel for SCSD2 contacted our lawyer seeking a remedy outside the courtroom. Here’s how that’s accomplished: One, own up to it. The cat’s out of the bag. Bridger’s remarks in January took care of that. Two, embrace transparency. It’s easy to say so — transparency sounds good in conversation and works well in a speech. Yet, in practice it’s difficult. Finally, The Press suggests SCSD2 host a training for administration, staff and school board members on Wyoming’s rules regarding public records, open meetings and ethics.
Much is said in Sheridan about superintendent Dougherty’s current $198,000 annual salary. The relevancy is that he’s a public employee. Chairman Bridger, and his school board peers, are another matter. As elected officials, they hold the public’s trust and should be accountable for their actions.
This school board and its superintendent isn’t accustomed to having their actions challenged, or even questioned. Their hubris is remarkable. Funneling basic — public — information requests through the HR director isn’t enlightened, nor is it a progressive step toward resolution. It is an attempt to restrict access to information that belongs to the public.