School Board leans toward hiring public information officer

skinney@keynoter.comNovember 16, 2013 

The Monroe County School District might hire an official spokesperson to deal with the public.

At a board workshop Tuesday at Marathon High School, the board voted 3-2 to hire a public information officer, who would handle public-records requests and the like. Since it was a workshop and not an official meeting, the proposal still has to go back to the board at a future regular meeting.

Board members John Dick and Ed Davidson voted against hiring a public information officer, but did join fellow board members Robin Smith-Martin, Ron Martin and Andy Griffiths in voting unanimously to bring in a contractor to help the district catch up on digitalizing and retaining backlogged documents.

Superintendent Mark Porter admitted, "We continue, since the time I came [to the district in August 2012], to struggle with our ability to respond in a timely, complete and efficient way to public-records requests."

The discussion is being driven by numerous requests lodged by Larry Murray, a former appointed member of the district's Audit and Finance Committee. Most recently, Murray received an estimated bill of up to $4,400 following his request for copies of e-mails among Porter and two other administrators.

Davidson and Dick staunchly oppose hiring a public information officer. The phrase "spin doctor" was used repeatedly Tuesday.

Smith-Martin, the District 1 representative who at one point in the discussion called the district a "laughingstock," gave a rendering of the First Amendment that Davidson described as "dangerously close to some pretty significant constitutional issues."

Addressing the district's limited ability to handle public-records requests, Smith-Martin said, "People want to exercise their right to everything all the time. The system doesn't work that way."

Davidson also pointed to a paragraph from Porter's "process improvement" report for public records that has generated some criticism.

It says "it is imperative that all employees understand what does, and what does not, constitute a public record. When has a record been created that is thereby subject to retention and recovery, and how to avoid unnecessarily or unintentionally creating public records, particularly emails and text messages."

Davidson called Porter's phrasing a "poorly worded ... tasty piece of ironic humor. That's exactly the kind of thing that you shouldn't put into writing."

"Some have interpreted this to mean I'm trying to put some type of chilling effect on the creation of records," Porter said. "That's not the case, but I do think there needs to be some due diligence when creating records, particularly in the area of what could constitute a student record and thereby invoke certain retention requirements."

Martin, whom Griffiths wants as his successor as chairman when the board holds its annual organizational meeting Tuesday in Key West, took a firm stand in favor of hiring a public information officer to provide a "consistent message" from the district and against Davidson's characterizations.

"You're tearing down the institution," Martin told Davidson. "And I know you don't mean to do that, Ed, but that's the way I read it. It seems like we never have a consistent message going out to the community."

And in reference to Davidson's frequent comments to the media, Martin said, "I think School Board business should be conducted in School Board meetings."

"I do not believe talking about the truth tears down the institution," Davidson said. "What tore down the institution catastrophically is a lot of people who weren't telling the truth."

"I'm ready to give anything a try," Griffiths said. "This is not working."

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