Editor’s Note: The following column was submitted by Kim Murphy, a former Lexington-Richland School District 5 board member and a former citizen reporter for The Nerve.
Last night I attended a meeting of my local school board – a board on which I used to sit until that board acted outside its authority and forcibly removed me.
On the agenda was a small, almost unnoticeable policy change. The board voted to strike the standard 10-cents-per-page cost required for fulfilling Freedom of Information requests. It may not seem like a big deal, but this small policy change essentially allows school administrators to impose much higher charges for fulfilling FOI requests – thus taking advantage of a weakness in state law permitting agencies to charge prohibitive prices for providing public information to members of the public. The board also removed portions of the state statute related to the public’s right to know, now making the policy less informative about the law to the reader.
But my point in mentioning this isn’t just to bring attention to the policy change on FOIA at one school district. I’m bringing it up because it’s a typical example of how the power of government officials often grows by increments. Laws designed to protect the public from unlawful uses of power and to make officials publicly accountable for their decisions are chipped away, little by little, in just these kinds of seemingly insignificant “policy changes.”
And if you want an up-close example of why preserving these small checks on power is so important, take a look at the bare-knuckle, Chicago-style politics of Lexington-Richland District Five.
During my time on the board – I was elected in 2010 – I had a number of sharp disagreements with my fellow board members. These weren’t personal disputes; they were disputes over policies and financial practices.
I criticized the board, for instance, for approving expensive, taxpayer-financed trips for school board members and administrators to undergo “professional development.” I called attention to what I considered egregious violations of the state’s procurement laws.
I’ve stopped the board from conducting illegal meetings. Once, while in executive session, the chairman simply opened the meeting room door — calling the closed session now “open”, then began discussing a sensitive but non-executive session matter – a matter that, I advised, should be discussed in the public meeting room where the public was seated awaiting our return. When I tried to record the illegal meeting, the chairman attempted to prevent it. When I insisted, he simply adjourned the meeting. On multiple occasions, they tried to prevent me from recording public meetings, which is explicitly allowable by state law.
When the board pushed the 2008 bond referendum containing major new facilities and renovation projects costing millions of public dollars based on false claims of exponential growth, I pointed out that enrollment in the district was actually shrinking, not growing. The then-current enrollment of 16,505 students would swell to 25,335 by 2018, they said. That’s a projection of an additional 900 students a year. But since the passage of the referendum, enrollment has, in fact, decreased year after year.
Granted, I probably didn’t make things easy for other board members, but that’s the nature of democratic politics: You take criticisms, and if you think you’re in the right, you defend your views.
This school board wasn’t satisfied with just defending their views, however. Instead they searched for – and eventually found (albeit without authority) – a way to remove me from the board. It turns out my home is close to the line dividing Lexington from Richland County, which sits on my tract of land. My seat on the board is a Richland seat – and indeed, I pay taxes in Richland County. I filed for election – twice – in Richland County and in 2010 was elected, and I vote in Richland County. The board’s chairman, however, alleged that I live on the Lexington side of the line and got a Budget and Control Board official to agree with him in a letter.
So, at the Jan. 14 board meeting, the chairman told the news media that I didn’t live in Richland County and was therefore disqualified from serving on the board. Not only did he give me no advance notice of this “finding,” he didn’t even let me respond to the allegation at the board meeting. The fact that both Lexington County and Richland County state that I live in Richland County and have for years was immaterial to the chairman and other board members – it was as good an excuse as they were going to find for removing an inconvenient opponent.
I’m now appealing that decision, and their response is to sue me for the preposterous sum of $10 million. Their reasoning? I asked questions. The board claims that I held up a building project. In fact, however, I merely raised questions about inaccurate and incomplete information originally supplied to the Corps of Engineers. The Corps effectively forced the board to delay the project because of their own omissions, not because of anything I did. Now, however, the board claims that during that period the costs associated with the project went up by $10 million, and that I’m somehow to blame. It’s a laughable claim that has more to do with payback than anything else.
Board members, to cover their mistakes and misrepresentations, have meanwhile used the full force of the district’s public relations machine to embarrass and humiliate me. They used the school’s marquee sign, the district’s enormous email list, and even automated phone calls to frame the entire episode as some kind of vicious attempt by one board member to derail needed upgrades.
To sum up: We’re way beyond the rough-and-tumble of politics here. The rule of law and the democratic process apparently mean little – annulling what by any standard was a fair and lawful election was all too easy for them. Nor do board members who publicly profess to care about “taxpayer dollars” see any problem with hiring a team of high-powered lawyers to sue me for a sum they know I couldn’t pay even in the unlikely event that they win.
So if the phrase “limited government” sounds too abstract to be meaningful to you, here’s a glimpse of what unlimited government looks like. Here’s a glimpse of what it looks like, in other words, when public officials use the power of government to exact revenge on anyone who stands up to them. It’s not pretty.