Another attorney files second FOIA request about Putnam schools' decision to stay open during strike

By Chris Dickerson | Feb 22, 2019

WINFIELD – Another attorney has delivered another Freedom of Information Act request to the Putnam County Board of Education.

Thomas Peyton, who manages the Peyton Law Firm in Nitro, hand-delivered his FOIA request Feb. 22 to the board offices in Winfield. The information he seeks regards the two-day teacher and service personnel strike related to an education reform bill in the Legislature.

Peyton said he just wants answers about the decision to be the only county in the state to keep schools open during the strike. 

“Was there a vote by the school board and was it a unanimous decision to keep schools open?” Peyton told The West Virginia Record. “Whether you like the omnibus bill or not, and whether you disagree with the decision for teachers to strike or not, for me, as of Monday evening, it was clear they weren’t going to have bus drivers running routes, the proper number of school personnel to handle almost any amount of children. So, why put the students and parents in this situation?”

In his two-page request, Peyton seeks copies of any audio and video recordings of meetings of the Putnam County Board of Education from Feb. 18 to Feb. 20 as well as all notes, minutes, electronic memos or other documents that reference or document those meetings.

Peyton, who currently has one student in Putnam Count school system, also requests any emails, text messages and phone recordings (including cellular phone) between any members of the school board from Feb. 18 to Feb. 20 as well as any between board members and Superintendent John Hudson on those days. He also requests those discussions between any board members or Hudson with members of the state Legislature for those days.

Peyton also wants documents and data showing the number of students who attended Putnam County schools on those days as well as how many school personnel worked. He also requests the food and beverage provided to students at each school on those days.

“Hudson said he kept school open to provide a good learning environment for students,” Peyton said. “But, I was told there were kids standing Tuesday morning waiting for a bus. Some parents don’t follow the news that closely. They didn’t know buses wouldn’t be running.

“My concern really is why would you put kids and parents in this situation when you should know there isn’t going to be any real meaningful instruction for the kids who do show up. Why are you exposing the kids to this?

“I just want to figure out what’s going on here and get a handle on it.”

Putnam County was the only county in West Virginia that kept its schools open during the two-day strike Feb. 19-20. Hudson spoke about the decision Feb. 22 on MetroNews’ “Talkline” radio program.

“We believed, and I believe, and in consultation with our board we have an obligation to uphold the rule of law,” Hudson told host Hoppy Kercheval. “Work stoppages are not permitted under West Virginia law. …

“We tried very much to have active learning in all of our schools. Was it exactly like it would have been if school was in session? I’m sure it was not. But we did allow that choice for our parents if they so chose.”

Peyton’s FOIA request came one day after another attorney filed one with the Putnam County school board.

Jennifer Singletary, a former state Supreme Court attorney, hand-delivered her FOIA request Feb. 21 to Hudson and other Putnam school board officials. She is a parent to one student in the Putnam County school system.

The request seeks any written correspondence, electronic or otherwise, from “any elected official holding office or any representative of a nonprofit organization with an interest in state legislation” regarding Senate Bill 451, which was known as the Omnibus Education Reform Bill, written from Jan. 20 to Feb. 20.

The request also seeks any such correspondence from Hudson or other Putnam board officials to those elected officials or nonprofit representatives regarding the same bill within the same timeframe.

Singletary’s request also seeks correspondence between Hudson or other Putnam board officials to and from the elected officials and nonprofit representatives regarding “the decision for Putnam County Schools to remain open on February 19-20, 2019.”

Singletary, who was named 2011 Young Lawyer of the Year by the West Virginia State Bar, notes that any written content “of a purely personal nature not related to proposed state legislation, any legislative bills or models thereof, state and/or local government business and/or the decision for Putnam County Schools to remain open” is not requested.

Singletary also requests access to or copies of any audio content of voicemails left on the school board’s phone system and extensions between Feb. 18 and Feb. 20 regarding the decision for Putnam County schools to remain open Feb. 19 and Feb. 20.

If such audio records are not transferable, Singletary requests a time for her to listen to them in person at the board office.

“I am even happy to transcribe the same with my own equipment and on my own time as a public service, if requested,” wrote Singletary, who now is an operations manager for United Bank.

Singletary also asked the board to waive any fees for her request as it is made in good faith and is in the public interest and “will contribute significantly to the public’s understanding of some decisions made recently by the Putnam County Board of Education or its Superintendent of Schools that seem unsupported by the majority of local elected officials’ constituency, against the collective decision of public school teachers and service personnel, and contrary to the best interests of Putnam County students.”

SB 451 has been a controversial topic this legislative session.

Senate President Mitch Carmichael (R-Jackson) was the lead proponent of the Senate version of the bill, which included provisions to establish charter schools and education savings accounts for households with an income under $150,000 and other items not endorsed by the state’s teachers unions. It did include a 5 percent pay raised previously promised by Gov. Jim Justice.

The Senate version passed, but was changed in the House of Delegates to eliminate the education savings accounts and capped charter schools at two. After that version passed the House, the Senate offered an amendment featuring a maximum of seven charter schools and 1,000 education savings accounts.

When the Senate offered that version of the bill, teachers went on strike for two days. They returned to work Feb. 21 after debate on the bill ended when the House voted Feb. 19 to table the bill, essentially killing it. Teachers stayed off work Feb. 20 to ensure the bill wasn’t resurrected.

Putnam County was the only school system that didn’t close schools Feb. 19 and Feb. 20. A vast majority of Putnam County teachers did not work those two days, opting to picket outside their schools. Few students attended schools those days either, as buses did not run. Like teachers, Putnam County bus drivers, cooks, custodians, secretaries and other personnel who didn’t work were not paid for those two days

Because of the county’s decision to remain open, Putnam County school personnel who didn’t work were the only teachers in the state not paid for those two days.

Carmichael represents part of Putnam County, as does Sen. Eric Tarr (R-Putnam), who has been the focus on discussion on social media about his interest in charter schools.

One rumor focused on Tarr wanting to invest in or open a charter school in Putnam County, which was bolstered by a section of the Senate amendment to the House version of the bill that stated legislators couldn’t profit from charter schools. The House version included that language, but the Senate amendment took that section out.

Tarr addressed those rumors Feb. 21 in his own post on Facebook.

“Amongst much of the misinformation around education reform, there are several lies being circulated on social media about me personally, cyber bullying in attempts to affect how I vote in the Senate,” Tarr wrote. “Please consider the motives and behavior of the groups circulating the libel before believing it or perpetuating it.”

Tarr, who owns a variety of businesses based in Putnam County, said he has “never had an interest in personally investing in any manner in a charter school.”

“I have never approached any person or entity about purchasing property, or any school, for the purpose of a charter school,” Tarr wrote.

He also said he respected Putnam County’s decision to keep schools open during the two-day strike, but that he didn’t try to influence that decision.

“I made no arrangement or quid pro quo of any sort to cause it,” Tarr wrote. “I was aware of a board meeting Monday night that indicated it was a possibility. I did not know until hearing it on the radio Tuesday morning that they were for sure closed [sic].”

Tarr also said he did talk to Hudson about the decision to close schools … after he accidentally called another John Hudson, who is a contractor that apparently has done work for Tarr in the past.

“Upon hearing the schools were closed Tuesday morning,” Tarr wrote, “I did call the wrong John Hudson and said, ‘Hi John, I just heard you were keeping schools open. That takes a lot of courage. I hate that our kids and parents have to endure this but I do believe Putnam County is on the right side of history. I’m with you 100 percent. Let me know if you need anything.’

“Once I realized it was the wrong one, I called the correct John Hudson and said the same thing again. As senator of the only county to stay open during the teacher strike, I believed it to be my responsibility to make sure the superintendent had an open line of communication.”

Hudson has not made any public comment about the decision to keep Putnam County schools open when the superintendents of the state’s other 54 counties opted to close schools.

Another Putnam County woman started an online petition to show Hudson that parents were disappointed in his decision to keep schools open.

Singletary said students at Putnam County schools are taught the Seven Habits through the Leader In Me program.

"I’m just seeking to understand first what were some puzzling decisions by the board or its superintendent," Singletary told The Record. "Sen. (Craig) Blair from the Eastern Panhandle was on Hoppy Kercheval's 'Talkline' radio program this morning railing about people having been misinformed about Senate Bill 451 and how people form opinions based on rumors and innuendo that spread on social media.

"I live in the southernmost tip of Putnam County where we have no real representation at the Statehouse. And if my values aren’t represented, then I can at least be informed. This is an opportunity to dispel rumors and innuendo. If this was really about making an investment that you can articulate some rationale for being in the best interest of our students, then just say so.

"If it’s not about outside interests making contributions in secret, then say so and show us. Don’t complain about where we get information if you refuse to inform us. Don’t spout meaningless cliches like, 'We’re keeping Putnam County schools open because education is important to us,' as though it’s not important to the other 54 counties."

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Peyton Law Firm, PLLC West Virginia House of Delegates West Virginia State Senate

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