Former Fort Smith School Board candidate Greg Murray blasted the School Board for circumstances surrounding his loss to current Board member Talicia Richardson at Monday night’s (March 27) meeting. Richardson defeated Murray 68%-32% in an election on Sept. 20, 2016.
Murray’s complaint came during the citizens participation forum, during which he charged that on Aug. 26, 2016, he sent an email asking permission to hand out political circulars regarding his campaign in district teachers’ mailboxes. Murray said he received a response from a School Board member – later self-identified as School Board President Dr. Deanie Mehl – referencing a policy that “prohibits distribution of political materials in schools.” Murray said there was an asterisk by the specific paragraph and a note to “please call if you have any questions.”
“What was asterisked, was section B,” he said, reading, “‘The distribution to school employees whether by placing in their school mailboxes political circulars from petitions not sent through U.S. Mail is prohibited. Elections to determine membership of the Board of Education will be considered to be political within the meaning of the preceding rules.'”
The problem for Murray came one week later when the Fort Smith Classroom Teachers Association (CTA) “placed in their teachers’ mailboxes a newsletter, (reading) ‘Your vote counts … McFerran and Richardson.'”
Murray continued: “The first article is ‘School board elections, your votes are vital,’ and it goes on to show the Fort Smith Teachers (Association) endorsed Talicia Richardson and Susan McFerran, and at the very end, ‘Please vote for Susan McFerran and Talicia Richardson for School Board.’ I was told I could not do that in teachers’ mailboxes. I was not allowed to place anything in there. They placed it a week before. One School Board member knew about this on the weekend beforehand. She failed to tell anybody.”
Murray fumed it had been five months since his initial complaint, and “nothing has been done, no discussion, no consequences.”
“I have a newsletter. I would like to put it in teachers’ mailboxes, but I can’t do it because I’m not in the system. I’m not in the system, therefore I’m at a disadvantage. Less than 4,000 people voted in that election. Nineteen hundred employees (are in) the Fort Smith School District — I’m pretty sure every single one of them voted. I’m upset this Board has not done anything in five months … to correct this travesty. I would like some consequences for this policy that was set in 1997. That’s how long the policy has been in effect. For over 20 years. What are we going to do to correct this?”
‘TWO SETS OF RULES’
Murray received a sympathetic ear in Board member Wade Gilkey, who said Murray’s issue “has been kind of an ongoing thing every election.”
“Bill (Hanesworth) and I went through something very similar – not with the CTA, but the administration – and there seems to be two sets of rules when it comes to School Board elections.”
Gilkey said there were no consequences when he and Hanesworth had their issues and said it “just seems like we have these rules, we have these policies, we all intend to follow them, but when it comes to election time, it depends on what side of the fence you are. And I don’t know about you, Bill, but I certainly felt that.” Hanesworth said he was under the impression Murray’s issue had been dealt with and the administration had been “very emphatic about that not happening again.”
“We need to follow up and be able to address that,” Hanesworth said.
After Monday’s meeting, Hanesworth told Talk Business & Politics the previous issue Gilkey was referring to occurred during their 2015 elections and had involved Hanesworth’s opponent reaching out to school district employees through the email system, to which Hanesworth did not have access.
“He made a mass mailing to all the teachers and administrators using the email addresses he had access to. Well, I didn’t have access to them, and it kind of caught me off-guard, so I called the administration and came down and met with them. This was about a week before the election, and I managed to get the email addresses. So it was really a question of whether a Board member should be using the email addresses of all the teachers. It got addressed. They changed the policy,” Hanesworth said.
On Murray’s issue, Hanesworth said the interpretation of whether the CTA sent a newsletter or a political document was something for the school district to decide. He said it was his understanding the person responsible for distributing the document faced some form of “disciplinary action,” but it was “kept private what that discipline was” since the action is officially a personnel issue.
Hanesworth continued: “It probably should have been done a little differently. Someone should have taken a look at what happened and made some kind of concession. It got a lot of attention, and I can assure you, I don’t think it’ll happen again.”
MEHL: ‘I DID DO SOMETHING’
Before the end of Monday’s meeting, Dr. Mehl defended her role and to correct Murray’s assertion she “did nothing,” stating she followed up on his complaint.
“I’m the Board member Mr. Murray was talking to,” she said, explaining she had received a call “from a very concerned constituent there were fliers in mailboxes, and I called the CTA President and asked what was the status of this, and was told it was a newsletter, not a flier, and it only went in the mailboxes of CTA members. So to me, that satisfied me.”
Dr. Mehl noted then acting Fort Smith Schools Superintendent and current Assistant Superintendent Dr. Gordon Floyd had met with representatives of the CTA, and it was “not the place of this Board to discipline individual employees. But I did investigate it, and the claim that I did nothing is not accurate.”
“It was referred to the administration, and they handled it appropriately,” Dr. Mehl explained. “I know we fine-tuned that policy following what happened (in the previous election) and based on what happened in this one — whether it is a newsletter or flier — depends on your interpretation.”
Dr. Mehl concluded the district will “go on the side of caution in the next election, and there will not be anything of that nature, I can assure you. But Mr. Murray, you are not correct. I did do something.”