EVANSVILLE, Ind. — Ann Ennis, a member of the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corp. School Board, couldn’t get answers to her questions about workman’s compensation for EVSC staff during a regularly-scheduled board meeting on Sept. 9.
So Ennis — an elected official — filed for a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) with EVSC. After several days, the school corporation approved her request giving her access to the information. But she’s still concerned about communication and transparency.
Ennis talked about the information she received in response to the request during Monday’s school board meeting saying many of her questions had been answered now. But she said a lack of transparency originally led to some confusion.
It all started back in January.
On Jan. 28, Ennis said she received four years’ worth of staff injury reports from the EVSC human resources department. These reports included a list of staff injuries, but the list ended Dec. 31, 2018.
She wanted to obtain additional data for injuries between January and May 2019. She asked for the information during the Sept. 9 school board meeting. The board voted down that request 4-3 forcing her to submit the FOIA request keeping her from discussing the topic during the meeting.
“In the United States of America, the propensity to secrecy is not a good thing,” Ennis said. “It’s just not. I mean, you know, we’re not CIA. And (the school board members) are doing a good job. There’s no real reason.’’
Karen Ragland, EVSC school board president said it’s “confidential information.”
“Despite (Ennis) saying she could get this (information), it’s confidential information that we as a board have to guard,” she said. “There’s a lot more in the mix than just getting this information for whatever purpose she’s trying to serve. We’re a unit, and we want to operate in a unified manner.”
Ragland said the school board voted to discuss the topic of workman’s compensation for an executive session in November.
Ennis’ past frustrations spawned from the board’s reluctance to give members information concerning EVSC operations — even as an elected official.
“I’ve been trying to get information from the school corporation, and this policy (3112) has come into play where I cannot, as a school board member, get information unless the president of the board and a majority of the board vote that I can ask for the information,” Ennis said.
She pointed out that her understanding of the policy means the public has more access to this information than she does as a school board member.
Ragland referenced policy 3112, a rule in the board’s bylaws prohibiting members from addressing specific topics during board meetings, in regard to Ennis’ questions.
The policy states the board isn’t authorized to comment on litigation, mention a person or juvenile’s name or discuss a personnel issue. Instead, the basic line of communication must go through EVSC superintendent David Smith.
During Monday’s school board, the board’s attorney Pat Shoulders further explained policy 3112 and its guidelines after Ennis questioned its legitimacy.
Ennis raised concerns about the policy’s adoption and last revision, with Shoulders saying it was likely amended in 2006. Ennis said the board should consider looking over all the policies that are that old, or even older.
“I understand 3112 and its intent, but it still seems to me we need to amend that,” she said.
The district’s cling to secrecy still restricts board members from obtaining information of public interest, Ennis said.
“The board has a right to have that policy, but we also made it clear that any individual, including a board member, has a right to get information that’s public access,” she said.
EVSC school board member David Hollingsworth said the reluctance to share information to the board’s members isn’t acceptable, especially with their role for taxpayers in the county.
“That’s hogwash. We are the elected watchdogs for the taxpayers,” he said, “We have the right and authority to get that information. Nobody is going to tell me or anybody else on the board what information we can have or not have if the taxpayers paid for it.”
Ennis said she’s still concerned about public statements made by Carl Underwood, EVSC assistant superintendent of business operations, earlier this month to the Vanderburgh County Council. He talked about negotiations and teachers’ wages.
Smith said conversations about negotiation of teachers’ wages are routinely addressed during these meetings.
Ennis claims much of the board was unaware of Underwood’s information, which prompted her and other members’ initial confusion.
“There was information that the school board didn’t have that apparently (Underwood) had,” Ennis said. “I still don’t know why he was making those statements that turned out to be truthful. It’s not a good thing.
“We couldn’t have asked Carl for that information, but we should’ve had it. It comes back to communication,” Ennis said. “There seems to have been a lack of communication between administration and the board. It pushed things in a different light.”
By the end of the school board meeting — and the executive session that immediately followed — Ennis said she gained a sense of clarity about the policy issues. She still has concerns about the corporation’s lack of transparency but said she’s focused on other issues concerning EVSC staff.
Ahead of the executive session in November, Ennis plans to combine the recent data she received from the FOIA with her past research to firmly address safety and security concerns.
Representatives from a risk management company that oversee the EVSC, she said, will also be at November’s session to help determine how to prevent staff injuries that have wavered over time.