Dexter Suggs, the new Little Rock school superintendent, has set strict conditions on visits to district offices by John Walker, the Little Rock state representative and attorney for black families in the decades-old desegregation lawsuit.
Suggs’ letter to Walker was combative and critical of Walker, who’d earlier written the School Board about the reception he’d received from Suggs during a visit to offices earlier.
This action follows Suggs’ decision to set up a webpage that lists all Freedom of Information Act requests made to the school district. He described this as a transparency issue, but the page doesn’t reveal information provided in response to requests. It does illustrate the volume of FOI requests Walker makes to the district, a process that has long rankled many administrators.
Walker’s e-mail to the School Board, which you can read in full on the jump, says he was told he had to submit FOI requests in writing, per Suggs’ instructions. If true, Suggs needs a lesson on the FOI. Written requests are not required.
Suggs said it has long been district policy to require all visitors to sign in with a security officer. He said Walker would be required to make an appointment before visiting and sets a procedure for seeing district officials. “When you enter the building you are not allowed to free-roam the halls or enter district employees’ offices for the purpose of seeking unspecified information.”
Suggs said Walker had “harassed and intimidated” Human Resources employees on Tuesday, a charge Walker denies. Walker also says strict entry policies are not enforced for other visitors.
Suggs’ letter closes, “I have been apprised of the past history dating back to 2001 of your characteristically unpleasant, unethical and unprofessional contact with employees of the Little Rock School District. We do not accept this type of behavior towards our employees, our students or other patrons of the LRSD. We will not allow this to continue. It is disruptive to the workplace.”
Walker said his request for an employment application that apparently triggered Suggs’ response was appropriate and non-confrontational. He noted, too, that the FOI request had not yet been fulfilled. He said Suggs had spoken with him during the visit and at no time was the conversation “acrimonious.” He said he’d been told he’d require a security escort to visit district offices in the future and he interpreted Suggs’ directive as an effective ban on visits to district offices. He said his wishes to visit district employees had to be approved by Suggs or two other administrators. He said the Board should discuss the “Superintendent’s right to effectively ban certain persons from the school administrative offices and by implication any school or office operated by the district.”
My comment: John Walker has been a thorn in the side of district officials for years. He CAN be aggravating. Suggs will be viewed as a hero by many of Walker’s enemies for lowering the boom. But …. Suggs has acted intemperately in accusing Walker of harassment and unethical behavior without any citation of specifics and very little personal experience of his own. Walker’s credible account of his encounter with employees indicate Suggs is like many superintendents — he believes there’s the law and then there’s the superintendent’s law, which supersedes statute. Suggs is an authoritarian. He demonstrated that before in the ill-fated clothing policy (proper undergarments required) and in his recent refusal to acknowledge my own FOI request for information about a job overture he received from another district. John Walker is a fact of life in the Little Rock School District. It makes little sense to me to declare a personal war on him with far bigger concerns to deal with. Suggs best be sure Walker is treated the same as ANY other visitor to district offices.
Following is John Walker’s e-mail, sent to all members of the School Board, but opening to Board president Greg Adams, from whom I’ve sought a comment:
(UPDATE: Adams sent Walker a brief note last night and copied it to me in which he said he’d respond fully after he’d gathered “all needed information.”)
Dear Mr. Adams,
For all the years of my engagement with the Little Rock School District, the LRSD administrative office on Markham has been an open building to parents and citizens. To my knowledge, no person has ever been banned from coming to the building for business, meetings, events or activities. Today, I was informed by the school administration that I am no longer welcome to visit the building unless I am there to see a specific person, sign a sign-in sheet and then await security to escort me to the office which I am there to visit. For your information, this followed on the heels of Ms. Joy Springer and I going to the offices of Mr. Burton and Ms. Pam Smith to obtain responses to freedom of information requests. While there, I spoke with a new hire in Mr. Robert Robinson’s office and sought a copy of her application for employment and her job description. I was informed by Ms. Renee Kovak that upon Dr. Suggs instructions, all FOIA requests had to be put in writing. I informed her that the AFOIA did not require a writing in order for one to obtain information. While sitting in the HR area reviewing the new Employee handbook, Dr. Suggs appeared and proceeded to engage us in conversation. We did not initiate the conversation. He promised that he would provide me the requested application the next day. I have not received it. We then spoke for no less than an hour in a conference room next to the elevator. At no time did either party engage in acrimonious conversation.
An hour ago I received a call that I was not to be welcomed again into the building unless it was approved by Dr. Suggs, Mr. Kelsey Bailey or another approved administrator.
If you and the Board approve this blatant disregard of past practice or alleged policy, would you be kind enough to place it on your next agenda so that there may be public discussion about the Superintendent’s right to effectively ban certain persons from the school administrative offices and by implication any school or office operated by the district.
I am copying the other Board members for their information and Dr. Suggs as well. The other persons who are being copied are the persons with whom Ms. Springer and I spoke while there.
John W Walker
P.S. The security guard was present upon our entry and exit.