Conway High School Ronny Willhite, Creative Commons

The Conway School Board spent much of its meeting Tuesday night hearing about and praising all good things in the school district from reading achievement to renovations to its superintendent.

For a while, it reminded me of a praise session. After all, board members and staff  talked of shining lights in the school district — lights that avoid Superintendent Jeff Collum‘s office as well as the documents and staff changes he guards so closely. But when it came to the Arkansas Sunshine Law — the name for the state’s Freedom of Information Act — and the journalists who often cite that law to do their jobs, the praise ended and the public scolding of the news media began.

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The public shaming started with board member Jason Sandefer.

“For months, we’ve let the biased media represent who we are as a board and as a district,” Sandefer said. “And directly to the media, the division you are attempting to cause is real and needs to be addressed. You are a small group, but your platform is wide … and many people who follow you blindly think they can trust your journalism. And in many cases, I use that term ‘journalism’ loosely.

“There’s one person in particular who says she’s a seasoned, nonpartisan journalist but everything I’ve heard and read from her is nothing but a poorly written opinion piece. If you’re going to be an opinion writer, that’s fine, but don’t try to [pass] it as actual journalism. It’s not, so call it what it is,” Sandefer said.

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“For those in the media that are writing these slanted pieces full of misinformation and falsehoods, shame on you,” Sandefer scolded. He urged those in the community to “stop following these crazy, slanted media people.”

He was obviously talking about me, though I’ve never called myself “seasoned” or “nonpartisan.” I might say veteran or experienced but not seasoned. And I’ve never pretended to be un-opinionated, though I kept my views out of my articles until I wrote an opinion column for a while and now write for the Arkansas Times.

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I agree that nonpartisan journalism has its place, and I’ve read and written plenty of that. But opinionated journalism — and there is such a thing, Mr. Sandefer — also has its place. Everyone who reads the Times knows its liberal leanings. Everyone who reads Faulkner County Reports knows its right-wing leanings.  Everyone who reads the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette knows its editorials tend to be conservative and that most news decisions are nonpartisan. I say “most,” not “all,” because sometimes the publisher gets involved and because we’re all human.

Then Sandefer lashed out at folks — like reporters, parents and other taxpaying citizens — who dare to make requests under the FOI, or public-records, law.

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Sandefer said the school district changed its email deletion policy to three days after an email’s receipt “because of the harassment we were receiving” from the media in the form of FOI requests. First of all, that policy was started not recently but one month after Collum became superintendent and before I was covering the school district.

Last month, Joel Linn, an assistant superintendent, told me in an email that in August 2021 the district “made the decision … to automatically delete emails that had not been archived after 72 hours.”

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No doubt other people were interested in the FOI in August 2021. To them, I say thank you. 

Collum and others painted a rosy picture of the school district when it came to student population, academic achievements, honors and finances.

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But not a word was said about the communications employee, Heather Kendrick, who normally honors a student at each meeting. Collum has relieved her of most of her communications duties. One board member said the media should ask questions to help get their facts straight. I do, but questions need answers, not silence.

Nor was any mention made of why deputy superintendent K.K. Bradshaw — praised aloud by board chairman Andre Acklin — got a “separation agreement” along with her resignation. The school district and its attorney, Jay Bequette, still have not released details of either the notice or the agreement.

Per Sandefer, I did ask about Bradshaw’s matter. I asked last week, I asked this week. I asked after the meeting Tuesday night. I asked again today.

Acklin joined Sandefer in dismissing the public’s right to know.

“We don’t want him [Collum] filling up his days with FOI requests. That’s a waste of this man’s time and energy,” Acklin said.

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In my own case, I can tell you that many of my FOIs deal with the same subject and are reminders for the district just to please answer them and not ignore them. The law governs how long the district can take to answer a request under the FOI. But this district does not care. And no one said Collum should handle them all. Things went more smoothly when Kendrick and Linn were both working on them.

Board member Linda Hargis publicly attacked KATV over a story it carried on a proposed policy that would ban or restrict words and concepts teachers and others can voice in a classroom. Hargis said board members rejected it during a work session as it was written. Whether the proposal might be revised and show up on a future agenda is anyone’s guess. There’s no audio recording of that session.

An unintended bit of humor came when new board board member Bill Milburn told the audience that people had asked him if there really were litter boxes in school restrooms since some students identified as cats. Milburn was scoffing at the idea and was warning about the sometimes weird information people spread on social media. What he apparently did not know was that Hargis had gotten involved in the litter-box rumor before she was elected to the board.

In a photographed Facebook post that Hargis later either deleted or changed the privacy settings on, Hargis joined those worried about litter boxes. She wrote: “… it is going on all over this nation. There are absolutely schools allowing students to meow and bark. I can’t speak for Conway because I have not confirmed it, but I have been told it is happening. I don’t care what anyone identifies as or what their school orientation is. … To each his or her own! I do not want our classrooms filled with social agendas or politics. We need to teach subject matter, character, life skills, etc. parents need to handle the rest of it.”

Hargis said nothing during Milburn’s litter-box story.

There were several police cars outside the administration building and those attending the meeting had to sign in with a police officer before entering.

I asked a Conway Police Department spokeswoman about the police presence.

She replied: “It was a joint effort between the Conway Public School District and the Conway Police Department. Knowing that a lot of individuals would be attending the Conway Public School Board Meeting, School Resource Officers were present to ensure the safety of all persons.”

I parked in my usual place outside the school’s administration building on Prince Street. Without an umbrella, I walked to the door where a police officer asked me to identify myself and told me I had to to walk back through the downpour and move my car to another parking lot since I wasn’t a staff member. I’ve never seen a sign saying only staff could park there. To that officer, I said, “You’re trying to keep attendance down.” He said, “Yes, ma’am.”

The public, including myself, eventually got to sign in, but we weren’t allowed inside until exactly 5:30 p.m. despite the rain. By night’s end, my notebook was soaked, and so was I. But I thank one person, a police officer who saw me searching for my car after the meeting and radioed for help finding it. It was nearby, just hard for either of us to see it from where we stood on an especially dark night.