Times-News Sues Gooding School Board Over Public Records Request

From the Twin Falls Times-News

By Alison Gene Smith

alismith@magicvalley.com

GOODING • After two public records requests were rebuffed, the Times-News has filed a lawsuit against the Gooding County School District, saying the district improperly denied requests for copies of separation agreements for Superintendent Heather Williams and Gooding High School Principal Chris Comstock.

In response to the requests, the school district said the documents were not public records.

In its lawsuit filed Monday, the Times-News says reporter Ed Glazar submitted a public records request to the district Jan. 22, asking for copies of the separation agreements.

The school district denied the request that day, saying only that the agreements “are confidential and not available to the public.”

That same day, Glazar appealed the district’s denial and made a second request.

On Jan. 27, the district denied his second request, saying Williams’ agreement is “a confidential agreement involving a personnel matter and is exempt from production to requests under the Public Writings Act.”

In its email to Glazar, the district said Comstock’s agreement is not signed.

In each of its notices, the district failed to cite a legal reason why the request was denied, the suit says. The suit also says the school district failed to say its attorney had reviewed the request.

In the suit, the Times-News cites the case Bingham v. Blackfoot School District No. 55, in which a judge decided the superintendent’s separation agreement was not lawfully part of the personnel file and was a public record.

“(The district’s) denial is believed to have been frivolously made,” the Times-News said in the suit.

“When the public’s business is being done, we have an obligation and duty to be that watchdog, to make sure it happens as the law requires,” Times-News publisher Travis Quast said Thursday.

Quast said the public has the right to know the terms of Williams’ and Comstock’s departure because the district is funded by taxpayers.

“After two failed public records requests in which they didn’t properly respond, we felt the district wasn’t taking our request seriously,” Quast said. “Our only option was to go to District Court.”

The school district’s leaders were served with the lawsuit Thursday. Also Thursday, Williams said she had decided not to pursue election as state schools superintendent. She did not immediately return calls, though, regarding the lawsuit.

She had submitted her resignation Jan. 16 after six years as superintendent, saying she will step down July 1. Her announcement came two days after Comstock resigned. But Williams, who has worked for the district since 1994, told the Times-News her resignation was unrelated to his.

A hearing for the suit is scheduled for Feb. 25 in Gooding County District Court before Judge John Butler.

In the suit, the Times-News asks that the district show why it has not provided the public records and produce copies of the records, that the case be heard by the court as soon as possible and that the newspaper be awarded attorney’s fees.

“We wouldn’t have filed the suit unless we thought we had a good chance of success,” said Times-News attorney Benjamin Cluff.

Cluff said Idaho law is clear on the matter.

“There’s a policy toward openness,” he said. “We feel the documents we’re asking for are not protected.”

Before Feb. 25, the district may respond in court to the suit. During the scheduled hearing, Butler will review the Times-News petition and could rule. He also could ask to review the separation agreements, Cluff said.

Comstock filed a lawsuit against the district’s Board of Trustees last year, arguing that the board violated Idaho Open Meeting Law.

District secretary Angela Jones also filed a lawsuit last year against the district and its Board of Education shortly after independent investigators wrapped up a probe into claims against Jones. The lawsuit alleges violations of open meeting laws, according to school records and court documents.

In his suit, Comstock claims a letter of reprimand was given to him in violation of state Open Meeting Law.

Court documents show Williams said Comstock shared details of the investigation into Jones with his wife, who then shared details with community members, including school board member Tracie Anderson, a violation of district policy and the Code of Ethics for Idaho Professional Educators.

From the Twin Falls Times-News

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