Trustees prepare to fight BISD for information
Beaumont Independent School District trustees met with their attorneys behind closed doors six months ago to discuss how the group could be collectively unaware of a stipulation in new superintendent Dr. Timothy Chargois’ contract allowing a mandatory base salary percentage increase for the $215,000-a-year administrator. The increase, according to the contract signed May 1 by Chargois and BISD officials, is required to be greater than or equal to the same percentage raise given to teachers in the district.
Once members of the board learned of the clause – after signing on the dotted line – blame was squarely placed on the district’s attorney, Tanner Hunt, for allegedly failing to notify any of the district’s elected officials of the provision. Some board members went on the offensive against their legal representation, with trustees Tom Nield and Mike Neil going so far as to sue Hunt and BISD for failing to give the elected officials materials necessary to make an informed decision on behalf of the taxpayers they represent. BISD Board of Trustees President Woodrow Reece has gone on record as saying he, too, was unaware of the raise clause in Chargois’ contract but was satisfied with the outcome, electing to let bygones be bygones.
A request for information made from Neil and Neild elicited multiple copies of a proposed contract, although none were of the initial draft. The elected leaders also asked for all correspondence related to securing Chargois’ new contract but were rebuffed. Correspondence released by the school district showed BISD’s attorney haggling over contract specifications with Chargois’ attorney, Cory Hartsfield, but the complete conversation was censored by BISD officials. According to Neil and Neild, the district’s continued refusal to provide the requested information has led to litigation that will now likely follow BISD into the new year.
At the May 1 board meeting, Reece asked Hunt if he should read the entire contract before accepting the agreement, and he was told it wasn’t required. Reece also announced no closed door meeting would be required to discuss the contract as had been previously scheduled and posted. The board unanimously accepted the contract, but it wasn’t long before members of the board started expressing buyers’ remorse.
In a joint statement from trustees Neil and Neild, the board members stated, “We wish to dispel immediately any notion that the BISD trustees were initially provided with a draft employment contract for the new BISD Superintendent that contained a term providing for any form of automatic raise for the superintendent. This false belief has apparently been encouraged by BISD through its provision of incomplete relevant records to the media.
“The Board’s instruction regarding the non-negotiable ‘no automatic raise’ term, to our knowledge, was never changed or modified at the request of the full Board.”
The two trustees then attempted to call a special meeting of the BISD board to address the matter with Chargois and the remainder of the board in closed session but were unable to do so. Attempts to secure information from Hunt were also unsuccessful, Neil said, and the trustees then filed suit against their attorney and BISD in an attempt to secure documentation held by the district and its legal representative to prove whether or not any members of the board were privy to the contractual agreement provided by Chargois’ attorney before signing it into effect.
In litigation filed at the Jefferson County Courthouse, the board member plaintiffs contended that, “The only draft employment agreement ever physically provided to the Board by Defendant Hunt that they were allowed to retain and review was provided to each Trustee by Defendant Hunt on March 28, 2012 by hand delivery.” Mike Getz, the attorney representing the board members in the lawsuit, stated his clients repeatedly requested materials from Hunt “to understand why the automatic pay raise provision was inserted into the contract without their consent or knowledge.”
“It is sad that these two elected officials have to go to such lengths to get their own attorney to provide them with documents that they need in order to perform their official duties,” Getz said. “My clients absolutely have a right to these documents, and to be stonewalled and ignored in the manner that they have been is unconscionable.”
Precedent for the trustees’ lawsuit came from a 1983 ruling from the Texas Attorney General still cited in official decisions emanating from the office to date. In the ruling, defined as Tex. Att’y Gen. Op. No. JM-119 (1983), the opinion concluded, “that board has an inherent right of access to such records, at least when he requests them in his official capacity. ... Without complete access to district records, such trustee could not effectively perform his duties.”
Still, the litigation’s outcome is uncertain. BISD attorney Hunt has since been removed as a defendant in the suit, and a proposed settlement from the plaintiffs, which included access to contract information, has stalled. Vann de Cardova, an attorney working with the plaintiffs, said BISD was required to respond to the settlement offer by Thanksgiving, but has failed to do so. In the interim, one of the two attorneys representing BISD in their quest to deny the information has billed the school district more than $60,000 for their time and efforts. A second law firm has yet to submit an invoice, but is expected to invoice similar bills.
Chargois’ attorney, whose firm also penned former superintendent Carrol Thomas’ contract, has responded to the plaintiffs’ litigation by revealing documentation withheld by BISD. BISD has countersued the plaintiffs, seeking retribution due to the lawsuit being, according to the school district, “frivolous.”
De Cardova said the case is anything but frivolous, and the materials provided by Hartsfield prove as much.
“BISD claimed in court proceedings that they gave the board members everything, but the release of documents from Hartsfield’s office proves that was not the case,” he said, adding that BISD board policy also supports trustees’ “inherent right to access.” According to de Cardova, withholding the requested information is a power play. “He who controls the information has the power.”