Ethics Panel Dismisses Parent Complaints Against Rhonda Thurman

Thursday, June 3, 2010

A newly formed County School Board ethics committee voted Thursday afternoon to dismiss four complaints brought by Normal Park School parents against board member Rhonda Thurman.

The five-member panel headed by board member Jeffrey Wilson did so after attorney Scott Bennett said the complaints did not fall within the jurisdiction of the committee.

He said it has a narrow scope limited to matters in which board members take an action that gives them a financial benefit.

Doug Fisher, Erlanger Medical Center official who is on the committee, said the definition is so narrow that such a complaint would likely be a criminal matter that should be forwarded to the district attorney.

Ms. Thurman, who was present at the session along with two church friends and her brother, said the charges had been "a waste of time" and cost the school system the time of attorney Bennett. "It was nonsense. There was nothing here to begin with," she said.

She said the scope of the panel should not be broadened or she said it will continually be dealing with similar "politics".

Ms. Thurman said, "It's just wrong that I have to defend myself against people who have repeatedly told lies about me and who put my name in a police report on an incident that I was not even there."

She referred to one of the complainants, Kelley Elliott, who called police to say Ms. Thurman was in front of her house in North Chattanooga in a white Lexus. Ms. Elliott later said she was apparently mistaken.

Ms. Thurman said, "These people need to grow up, put on their big girl panties and deal with it."

Also filing complaints were April Eidson and Channing Center.

A fourth complaint filed by Dennis Clark, husband of county school communications director Danielle Clark, had called for "the board's quick and appropriate discipline and public censure of Rhonda Thurman."

He said Ms. Thurman had "encouraged, supported and enabled the release of the Normal Park School directory for the sole purpose of attempting to bring doubt upon the lottery admittance process as it pertains to the parents who are district personnel or Normal Park faculty."

He also said she had been critical in public of school employees and Supt. Jim Scales.

This is the opinion by attorney Bennett:

Pursuant to the Committee’s request, I have reviewed the various ethics complaints lodged against Rhonda Thurman. Presently, four citizens have filed such complaints: Dennis Clark, Channing Center, Kelly Elliott, and April Eidson.

In my opinion, none of these complaints raise any issues falling within the jurisdiction of this Committee as outlined in Board Policy 1.107. No one has accused Ms. Thurman of having used her position as a Board member for her own personal financial gain. I therefore recommend that the Committee dismiss these complaints and notify the Board and the complainants accordingly.

THE SCOPE OF THIS COMMITTEE’S JURISDICTION

Board Policy 1.107 sets forth this Committee’s jurisdiction. In particular, this Committee may “investigate any credible complaint against an official or employee charging any violation of this Code of Ethics, or may undertake an investigation on its own initiative when it acquires information indicating a possible violation, and make recommendations for action to end or seek retribution for any activity that, in the committee’s judgment, constitutes a violation of this Code of Ethics.” (HCBE Pol. 1.107, p. 2, lines 17-20).

The Board’s Code of Ethics is particularly concerned with how officials and employees handle matters in which they have a “personal interest.” The policy defines “personal interest” to mean “a financial interest of the official or employee,or a financial interest of the official’s or employee’s spouse or child living in the same household, in a matter to be voted upon, regulated, supervised or otherwise acted upon in an official capacity.” (HCBE Pol. 1.107, p.1, lines 11-14). The policy also specifies how officials and employees are to avoid the appearance of any financial impropriety in the performance of their duties on behalf of the Hamilton County Board of Education.

SUMMARY OF THE ALLEGATIONS

None of the complaints allege that Ms. Thurman misused her authority as a Board member for her own personal financial interest. Three complaints allege that Ms. Thurman has behaved unprofessionally in the performance of her duties,and the fourth alleges that she wrongfully disclosed confidential student information. However serious these allegations may be, they do not constitute a violation of the Code of Ethics. Accordingly, this Committee has no jurisdiction to investigate them.

• Complaints by Dennis Clark, Channing Center, and Kelley Elliott

The first three complaints raise essentially the same issue: Ms. Thurman has allegedly behaved unprofessionally in the performance of her duties as a Board member in violation of Board Policy 1.106. Mr. Clark accuses Ms. Thurman of having failed to support and protect personnel in performance of their duties; having criticized employees publicly rather than forwarding this criticism to the Superintendent for investigation and action; having failed to support the Superintendent as the designated agent of the Board of Education; and having failed to refer all complaints and concerns regarding the operation of the schools to the Superintendent.

Ms. Center alleges that Ms. Thurman has personally attacked the principal of Normal Park Museum Magnet School by suggesting that this principal has acted improperly. She argues that school employees cannot defend themselves against public attacks by Ms. Thurman and that, accordingly, the Board of Education should intervene and protect the school system’s employees.

Ms. Elliott accuses Ms. Thurman of having demonstrated “contempt and unethical conduct.” She suggests that Ms. Thurman is “clearly and disruptive and difficult to work with.” Presumably referring to Ms. Thurman, she also states that one Board member “has made statements that are inaccurate and offensive.”

It is important to note, however, that none of these complaints suggest that Ms. Thurman has used her elected position for her own personal financial gain. In the absence of any such allegations, Mr. Clark, Ms. Channing and Ms. Elliott have not raised issues implicating Board Policy 1.107. Given that these complaints do not raise issues falling within the ambit of Board Policy 1.107, this Committee does not have jurisdiction to consider their allegations.1

1Note that Policy No. 1.106 does refer to itself as a “Code of Ethics” and states that “ethical issues regarding the board or its members may be referred to the TSBA Ethics Advisory Council.” As I explained during your May 27 meeting, however, this language is arcane and predates the adoption of Policy 1.107. Indeed, TSBA abolished its Ethics Advisory Council many years ago because it found that it was receiving complaints regarding the internal operations of school boards.

I am not suggesting that Ms. Thurman has or has not committed any of the alleged breaches of duty. To the contrary, I am merely stating that, as they relate to the function of this Committee,these allegations are immaterial.

• Complaints of April Eidson

Ms. Eidson has submitted two emails to the school system alleging that Ms.Thurman released her child’s “identifying information” during the Board’s deliberations over Normal Park’s admission process. Ms. Eidson has argued that the Board of Education should treat this release of information as an ethics complaint, presumably within the meaning of Board Policy No. 1.107. Although we discussed this matter in detail at your May 27 meeting, I reiterate my conclusions for the purpose of this Committee’s records.

First and foremost, Ms. Eidson does not allege that Ms. Thurman released any student information in furtherance of any personal interest within the meaning of Board Policy 1.107. Indeed, there appears to be nothing within Ms. Eidson’s allegations that implicate this particular policy. As a result, this Committee has no jurisdiction over her complaint.

However, since this particular charge against Ms. Thurman has received substantial public attention, I also underscore that Ms. Thurman’s actions have not violated any law. The Tennessee Public Records Act, T.C.A. § 10-7-504(a)(4)(A),specifically allows schools to disclose students’ names, ages, grade levels, and home addresses. Normal Park released this information when it authorized its PTA to publish a student directory.2

2Ms. Eidson contends that this information remained confidential under the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act irrespective of the provisions of Tennessee law to the contrary. Given that any allegedly illegal disclosure occurred, if at all, when Normal Park provided this information to the PTA, this argument is irrelevant as to the charges against Ms. Thurman.

Once this information became available to persons outside the school system, it ceased to be confidential. Furthermore, even if this information had remained confidential, note that Ms. Thurman would nevertheless have had a right to it in her capacity as a Board member. State and federal law recognize that school system officials can have access to any student information for legitimate educational purposes.Considering the attention that the Board has given to Normal Park’s admission process, any Board member could have lawfully demanded this information for purposes of assessing the impact of the Board’s policies.

Finally, note that Ms. Thurman denies having disseminated this information to any third party. When she offered to share the student information with anyonewho was interested during the course of a Board meeting, she explains that she was referring to her fellow Board members and officials within the Administration, not the general public. She also states that the only person who accepted her offer to review her data was Chip Baker, a fellow Board member, who reviewed it at his desk at the Board meeting and then returned the information to her. She denies that she disseminated this information to anyone else.

Accordingly, even if this information were confidential, Ms. Thurman did not impermissibly disseminate it to anyone.

In the final analysis, Ms. Eidson’s allegations do not raise questions of ethics as defined by Board Policy No. 1.107 and do not raise questions of illegality.

The Committee properly dismissed Ms. Eidson’s allegations as being outside its jurisdiction.

CONCLUSION AND RECOMMENDATION

Since the Hamilton County Board of Education created this Committee pursuant to Board Policy 1.107, complaints that fall outside the parameters of this policy are beyond this Committee’s jurisdiction. Inasmuch as none of the four complaints presently before this Committee accuse Ms. Thurman of wrongdoing within the meaning of this policy, I recommend that this Committee dismiss these complaints and advise the Board and the complainants accordingly.

In reaching this conclusion, I do not offer any opinion regarding whether Ms. Thurman did or did not breach the “duties” enumerated within Board Policy 1.106.

Likewise, I do not offer any opinion regarding what steps, if any, the entire Board of Education can take to govern itself or its members as they fulfill their duties to their constituents and speak about matters of public concern. Those matters are topics for a Board retreat or work session.

Should any of you have any questions about my opinion or analysis, please feel free to contact me at your convenience.

This is Ms. Thurman's written response to the complaints:

At Thursday's, May 27, Ethics Committee Meeting I was given a copy of complaints filed against me by April Edison, Kelley Elliott and Channing Bevil Center. I would first like to address the complaints from April Edison.

Ms Edison says she is "in possession of enough information to show that Ms Thurman working in conjunction with Jim Crooks and Mr. Bikas did in fact compile personally identifying information about children and their parents, and generated a map for the purpose of fabricating a civil and criminal case against NPS."

First, I have only seen Jim Crooks twice. The first time was at the Warren Chapel Church, 503 North Market at a meeting held by Dr. Scales concerning the zoning of Bell and Spears Ave. At this meeting, when Mr. Crooks spoke, he made reference to the fact he attended Washington Elementary and Tyner High School. Mr. Crooks looked to be about the age of my younger brother who also attended Washington and Tyner. After the meeting, I approached Mr. Crooks and asked if he knew my brother, Tim. He did and proceeded to ask about Tim and his family. We talked about other people from the neighborhood where they grew up. He then told me his mom was a customer of one of my co-workers. After talking about his mom for a short while, our conversation moved on to the Normal Park zoning issue. I asked Mr. Crooks if he lived in the Bell and Spears Avenue area in question. He said he had lived in North Chattanooga for years, but the area where he lived was already zoned for Normal Park. After a few more minutes of conversation about the Bell-Spears Ave. zone, I left.

The next time I saw Jim Crooks was at the school board meeting when we voted on the Bell-Spears Avenue zone. He was sitting in the audience. However, I never spoke to Mr. Crooks. So, Ms Edison's accusation that I worked in conjunction with Mr. Crooks to "compile" or "generate" anything is not an accusation it is an absolute fabrication.

As far as my working with Mr. Bikas to compile personally identifying information or generating maps for lawsuits, I am at a total loss. I have not generated any map for any reason. The only map I have used is the Normal Park zoning map given to all board members. I spent hours checking addresses in the Normal Park Lower student directory to see which ones were in the zone. I then marked the addresses belonging to faculty by comparing names. I then marked addresses of administrators, principals and other teachers I knew. However, this was a very cumbersome task. I also realized that not all parents were listed in the directory because I knew several students who attended Normal Park who were not in the directory. So, I decided as a school board member, there was no need to continue spending time dissecting information when I could get what I needed from the administration.

I have seen a map with values placed on houses. While it was interesting, it was not the information I was looking for so I did not record any of the information. To say I had anything to do with "generating" this type of map is a total lie. Even if I did research public information and put it on a map, what does that have to do with ethics violations?

All board members have received information regarding Mr. Bikas' son and his situation with the Normal Park school zone. Mr. Bikas has sent some of the information via e-mail, other by regular mail and still other information was hand delivered to me at work. I have sympathized with Mr. Bikas because I think it is ridiculous that he can stand in his yard and see a school a couple of blocks away yet his son cannot go there. While other children who live farther away can attend and walk past his house everyday.

Then Ms Edison says the Thurman Group (whoever that is) is "fabricating a civil and criminal case against NPS" and "Each of them have disclosed and bragged about participating in compiling the data and/or filing complaints of NAACP, and Federal, Sate, and Local agencies."

"Bragged about compiling data"? I have a Normal Park Lower School student directory that I received in the mail. I do not have a directory for the Upper School. I did not "compile" or "generate" the directory, I only received it. Someone at the school level is responsible for compiling the information for the directory, not me.

By far the most ridiculous accusation made by Ms. Edison was, "Ms Thurman working with Charles Bikas also conspired together to rally the African American community for their own selfish agenda that ranges from revenge to financial gain. The NAACP has been provided with false information that was facilitated by Ms Thurman"

How did I "conspire" with Charles Bikas to "rally" the African American community? Where exactly is the African American community? Was pointing out at a school board meeting that only 3 of the 100 staff members at Normal Park Upper and Lower are African Americans the rallying cry? I know some North Chattanooga residents have contacted the NAACP and possibly had meetings. However, I was never in attendance. Unless, I was spotted sitting outside in my Lexus, talking on my cell phone and taking notes.

Ms Edison's accusation that I have "a selfish agenda ranging from revenge to financial gain" is totally out of line. Revenge for what? Dennis Clark's letters? Does Ms Edison think I just started talking about magnet schools when Dennis Clark wrote a comment a few months ago? Anyone who has been paying attention since 2002 knows I have been talking about, what I feel, is an uneven playing field for magnet schools. A search of my opinion letters over the past several years to chattanoogan.com lays out the reasons I feel magnet schools do not play by the same rules as "regular" schools.

Revenge is not my "selfish agenda". I do not know Dennis Clark. I have only seen him in the May 2010 edition of Chatter Magazine with his wife, Danielle, Cinnamon Smith, who teaches dance at Normal Park Lower, and her husband, Ken Smith, a candidate for the school board in District 3. His company, Episode 49, was awarded the $60,000 HCDE web site contact 11/19/09. His company has also constructed web sites for the PEF and Normal Park.

As I said, revenge is not the reason I want the truth about the computer generated lottery process used at magnet schools. I want to insure that all students, schools and teachers are treated equally. The only way to insure this is to obtain information about the application and acceptance practices used for admission into magnet schools.

The most egregious statement made by Ms Edison's is the reference to my doing something in regards to Normal Park for financial gain. If I am doing something in North Chattanooga for financial gain, not only is this an ethics violation, it is criminal. This is a very serious allegation.

Her next statement, "The NAACP has been provided with false information that was facilitated by Ms Thurman." I have never knowingly met with anyone from the NAACP. The only person I know affiliated with the NAACP is Eddie Holmes, former president of the Hamilton County Chapter of the NAACP. Eddie and I have been friends for years. However, I have not talked to Eddie in a long time and to my knowledge I have never discussed Normal Park with him. I have also never knowingly provided information to anyone in the NAACP. But again, so what if I did? Is it unethical for a white girl from Soddy-Daisy to talk with the NAACP? Exactly what is Ms Edison saying?

Ms Edison goes on, "Only identifying information was collected for NPS, no other magnet school was targeted."

Normal Park was not "targeted". It was simply the magnet school in the limelight with all of the $5,000 pre-k discussion. Each magnet school that uses the computer generated lottery for student selection needs to be examined. But, the investigation process has to start somewhere. No matter which school is examined first, they will feel they are being targeted.

With Ms Edison being so concerned with people distributing her personal information, I think it is interesting that she ends each of her letters with her cell phone number as well as her home number. With just that simple information, one can find out her address, see a picture of her house, know her occupation, her husband's name, his occupation, her age, his age, her former residences , and how many children live in her house. Like it or not the internet changed our lives forever.

Ms Edison also says, "Ms Thurman has methodical sought to cause unwarranted harm against a public school, which is contrary to the mission of a school board member." While I am not sure what "methodical sought" means, I am sure I am not doing it.

FYI-The letter that Ms Edison references as "chattanoogan thurman comment", was not sent to chattanoogan.com by me. It was a personal e-mail I sent to Ms Edison when she accused me of distributing her child's confidential educational information.

Now, I will address Kelley Elliot's complaints, even though I am not sure why I should have to. She says, "The charge, (creating an atmosphere of contempt and suspicion), has been led by one of its members who is clearly disruptive and difficult to work with." I'm not sure, but I think she is referring to me. So, I guess not playing well with others is unethical? She goes on to say "this member has made statements that are inaccurate and offensive. (I really would like to comment on a police report with inaccurate statements, but I won't.) Since when is offending someone unethical?

Ms Elliott goes on to say, "members are allowed to act outside of official meetings as independent spokespersons on school issues." Since when do elected officials have to give up their first amendment rights? I can speak on school issues anytime I wish, to anyone I wish, as long as I let it be known that my statements are mine and not that of the Board.

Ms Elliott goes on to say I have "lost my right to speak or vote in matters regarding magnet schools." Excuse me? I have lost my right to speak or vote because some are offended? Unless I am found guilty of a crime (then it depends on the crime),the only people who can take my right to vote or speak away are the same people who gave me the right to vote and speak for them to begin with-the citizens in District 1.

Ms Elliott says MY "unethical conduct is on public record". Well, at least it is not in a police report. Ms Elliott goes on; she "has made public, unsubstantiated allegations…" Do I really need to comment?

Ms Elliott threatens to take this further, if she" does not see these issues addressed that have caused a crisis in community confidence of the HCDE School Board." If community confidence was not shaken by a HCDE board member being a "bag man" for the Tennessee Waltz, the HCDE school board attorney taking a bribe, or a shoplifter who was not found innocent but given a diversion, I expect the confidence level will remain about the same with someone who does not play well with others.

As far as the rest of Ms Elliott's comments questioning my character; I refuse to continue to defend myself. I will, however, consider the source.

Now, for Ms Channing Bevil Center's ethics complaint. In the chattanoogan.com letter to which she refers I said, "… every school could be a Normal Park if all schools could hand pick their District 1.

Ms Elliott says MY "unethical conduct is on public record". Well, at least it is not in a police report. Ms Elliott goes on; she "has made public, unsubstantiated allegations…" Do I really need to comment?

Ms Elliott threatens to take this further, if she" does not see these issues addressed that have caused a crisis in community confidence of the HCDE School Board." If community confidence was not shaken by a HCDE board member being a "bag man" for the Tennessee Waltz, the HCDE school board attorney taking a bribe, or a shoplifter who was not found innocent but given a diversion, I expect the confidence level will remain about the same with someone who does not play well with others.

As far as the rest of Ms Elliott's comments questioning my character; I refuse to continue to defend myself. I will, however, consider the source.

Now, for Ms Channing Bevil Center's ethics complaint. In the chattanoogan.com letter to which she refers I said, "… every school could be a Normal Park if all schools could hand pick their students the same way some magnet schools do." The fact is, I have not been able to find out who picks the students at Normal Park or any other magnet school that uses the computer generated lottery process. This is why I am demanding to know how the computer generated lottery works. I was told one administrator got her children in Normal Park "fair and square", that her application was not even "weighted". Huh? "Weighted?" Applications can be "weighted?" This tells me there really is a process to give favor to some applicants. Now, we are getting somewhere.

NPMM website also says"…downtown worksites get priority in the lottery. To find out if your workplace is one of the specified sites, check page 2 of the magnet school application…" Now, we also know that certain worksites get priority in the lottery. This brings on more questions. Who picks the worksites? Why?

Regular schools have to take every student who walks through their door. Magnet schools, by their own admission, "weights" applications for acceptance and picks certain worksites for priority in the "lottery". I think the entire board should demand to know how this admittance process works.

I know this letter has been lengthy and I apologize. However, after reading some of the outrageous accusations made in these complaints, I felt I had to respond in order to defend myself.

Thank you for your time,

Rhonda Thurman



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