Lawsuit: Kingsport, Sullivan school boards, Kingsport BMA violated state Sunshine Law

Matthew Lane • Apr 22, 2013 at 8:51 AM

KINGSPORT — Two Kingsport women have filed a lawsuit against the Kingsport Board of Mayor and Aldermen, Kingsport Board of Education and the Sullivan County Board of Education, claiming the elected officials have held meetings on school consolidation in violation of the Tennessee Open Meetings Act.

Angie Stanley and Monica Comsa filed the lawsuit in Sullivan County Chancery Court on April 19 naming the BMA and two boards of education as the defendants. The lawsuit was filed by Kingsport attorney Larry Roberts.

Earlier this year, Sullivan County Director of Schools Jubal Yennie proposed merging North and South high schools to help address the consolidation issue facing the Sullivan County School system, where some schools are over capacity and others are being underutilized. Yennie’s proposal is aimed to better manage the student population within the county and help reduce operating costs within the system. The move could save the school system up to $4 million.

According to the lawsuit, members of the BMA and two BOEs have held meetings regarding consolidation in violation of the TOMA, as evidenced by a series of emails between the two women and Vice Mayor Tom Parham. The emails were sent to and from Parham’s re-election campaign e-mail address.

In the emails, Parham referenced a “leadership team” of business leaders and educators from both (school) systems who meet monthly to foster communication and improve planning for both systems. Parham said its members include the mayor, city manager, the superintendents and school board chairs and some business leaders.

Parham continued by saying the leadership team is a steering committee, not a formal committee that keeps minutes, and holds its meetings in private.

The state open meetings act, commonly referred to as the Tennessee Sunshine Law, states that a meeting is any gathering of two or more members of a public body in order to deliberate or decide on public policy.

Pat Hull, attorney for the Sullivan County BOE, said upon his initial viewing of the lawsuit, he does not think there’s any violation of TOMA or any other law.

“We don’t think there’s any merit to this,” said Hull, noting the leadership team meetings did not appear to have the requisite number of board members in attendance. “The state’s open meetings law mentions its application when two or more members of a public body meet on public matters and when a group that advises a public body meets.

“Every get-together of school people is not covered by the open meetings law.”

Hull said he will likely file a motion to dismiss the lawsuit within 30 days.

According to the lawsuit, the two women are seeking for the leadership team meetings to be ruled in violation of the Sunshine Law and to be ordered to cease immediately. They also are calling for any decisions made by the team’s members regarding consolidation to be declared null and void.

“Currently, we are unaware of the full scope of the lawsuit, but will examine any information and communicate through the city attorney when it becomes known,” said Andy True, spokesman for Kingsport City Schools.

Stanley is among a group of parents in the Sullivan South High School zone who recently launched a website (www.savethesouthzone.org) in opposition to the North/South school merger and has been an outspoken critic of consolidation in the county school system.

Kingsport spokesman Tim Whaley said the city had not received the lawsuit yet and therefore would not comment.

Staff Writer Rick Wagner contributed to this report.

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