Superintendent lawsuit agreement signed

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

ALBANY -- Although it was costly in terms of dollars and personnel time, representatives of The Albany Herald, WALB-TV and WFXL-TV said Friday that the investment in open government was worth it Friday morning.

The Albany news organizations signed settlement papers in their lawsuit against the Dougherty County School System and its Board of Education, which agreed to release information on three of the six candidates the board interviewed for its next superintendent in late December.

The board voted 5-2 Jan. 27 to appoint Albany State University executive Joshua Murfree as its only finalist and voted 4-3 on Feb. 3 to remain with that appointment. The news organizations partnered to file a lawsuit against the School Board on Feb. 4 after the board failed to comply with the Georgia Open Records Act by not releasing information about the other superintendent finalists.

The agreement, which the School Board accepted Wednesday in a 6-1 vote, states that the board does not admit to "any of the allegations contained in the complaint" or to the validity of the news organizations' complaints.

The settlement was signed Friday at the law offices of Langley & Lee by Albany Herald President and Publisher Michael J. Gebhart, WFXL-TV President/General Manager Jenny Collins and by WALB-TV News Director Rick Williams, who signed on behalf of General Manager Jim Wilcox. Dougherty County School Board Chairman David Maschke and Superintendent Sally Whatley signed the agreement Thursday, with Whatley "attesting Maschke's signature as secretary of the Board of Education," DCSS Attorney Tommy Coleman said.

Bill Calhoun, the attorney representing the Albany news agencies, said he notified Judge J. Richard Porter III of Cairo that the hearing set for Monday on a temporary restraining order the plaintiffs' received had been canceled in Dougherty County Superior Court.

"It's unfortunate that we needed to go to this extent and extreme because the School Board should've done this in the first place," Gebhart said.

Asked what stood out most about the case, Gebhart said, "The extreme that they went to make sure they got their man, that's what was the most amazing aspect of this whole ordeal."

Collins was thankful that the superintendent lawsuit aspect was over.

"It's been time consuming," said Collins, who has with WFXL six years. "We've incurred expenses, the school system has incurred expenses and none of it would've been necessary if they had done what they were supposed to."

Wilcox told The Herald Wednesday: "It is a crying shame we had to spend thousands of our dollars and taxpayers' dollars to require elected officials to comply with the law."

The settlement lists five conditions. The first was to release and provide to the public copies of all the documentation that the School Board has on the three candidates they "preliminarily deemed to be best qualified" for the next superintendent.

The second condition was that after the board interviewed six candidates and narrowed its list to three candidates for second interviews, that if the total of three -- including Murfree -- decline to have their documents released, then the School Board "shall seek candidates consenting to the release of their documentation from the remaining of the six initially interviewed, starting with the next preliminary best qualified and descending in order of their qualifications for the position, until a total of three are obtained." However, if none of the six candidates choose to have their information released, the School Board has "no obligation to release information on any other candidates."

Coleman said Georgia School Boards Association consultant Bill Sampson, who conducted the national search for the board, was calling the candidates for the School Board. The Herald uncovered Arkansas educator Roy G. Brooks, a 37-year educator with superintendent experience, as a finalist on Feb. 18. Former Clayton County School System interim Superintendent Valya Lee was the other finalist before she withdrew from consideration last month.

The third condition was that the School Board "shall not actively try to discourage applicants for the purpose of eliminating applicants competing with Dr. Murfree."

The fourth condition is the School Board can't take final action to name a superintendent until at least 14 days pass from the date of the release of the information and documentation requested.

The final condition was that once all the procedures that were listed were fulfilled, the news organizations would dismiss their lawsuit.

As far as when the School Board will release the candidates' names, Calhoun said the agreement doesn't have a timetable.

"There's no specific timeline requiring them to produce the information within X number of days, but they can't make a final appointment until 14 days after they produce the records under the Open Records Act and our settlement agreement," he said. "I would anticipate they would move forward fairly quickly and produce the documents."

Before joining Langley & Lee 10 years ago, Calhoun worked for nine years in the Office of the Attorney General of Georgia in Atlanta. He said he dealt with Open Records cases frequently when he worked in the Attorney General's Office.

"Most Open Records disputes or disagreements do not go to court, but would be resolved informally," he said. Calhoun said he couldn't remember any Open Records request cases that he handled in his 23-year career that went to a trial.