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  • Writer's pictureBill Raines

North Lawrence Community School Attorney Pittman Files Brief in Lawsuit

BEDFORD - MARCH 8, 2023 - The North Lawrence Community School Attorney Pittman Law Firm by Greg Pittman filed a brief for a summary judgment following a lawsuit filed against Jerry and Deanna Ford in their request for public access.


The brief was filed on February 16, 2023, In Lawrence County Circuit Court.


A special judge Monroe County Judge Holly Harvey is presiding over the lawsuit.


Jerry and Deanna Ford are requesting their attorney fees be paid by North Lawrence Community Schools.


The other persons named in the lawsuit was dropped from lawsuit which included Jason Johnson, Gearld Hill, and James Evans in their request for public information.


Here is the information contained in the brief filed by the school corporation.


Photo: The former Heltonville Elementary School has been purchased by Jerry Ford to be used as a drug treatment facility


The brief asks for a summary judgment in support of the school corporation.


The North Lawrence Community School Corporation Superintendent Dr. Ty Mungle hired ESOLVE Solutions in July 2019, to assist him in reviewing data, gathering input from experts and community stakeholders and getting a vision for the school corporation.


ESOLVE Solutions advised Dr. Ty Mungle to create a committee made up of parents, business owners, teachers, and other community stakeholders to help develop options and advise the Superintendent regarding how to right-size and improve the school district.


Dr. Ty Mungle invited a group of approximately 30 community member volunteers and school board members to participate in a series of meetings and consider options for the North Lawrence Community School District.


The brief omitted that some of those members included the North Lawrence Community school board members to a number less than the required state law that would require public access.


According to North Lawrence Community School was advisory to the Superintendent and did not have authority to make decisions or take final action on any matters relating to the school corporation.


The school board did not appoint the Visionary Committee nor did President Trent Todd did not appoint the Visionary Committe. What was omitted in the brief is that the school board did have at least three members and one spouse of a school member attend the visionary committee meetings to circumvent the public access law.


The Visionary Committee met approximately eight times with the final meeting being held on December 4, 2019.


In November 2019, ESOLVE Solutions held a public forum where over 600 community members attended the final meeting with 60 people commenting on the three plans developed by Superintendent Dr. Ty Mungle.


Former Fayetteville Elementary School


The plan from the Visionary Committe outlined plans to reorganize, restructure, and consolidate elementary and middle schools within the school district to right size the school corporation.


After the public forum, the Super indent created a recommendation based on the information from the Visionary Committee and members of the public.


On December 7, Dr. Ty Mungle and ESOLVE Solutions presented to the school board and the Superintendent three options to reorganize, restructure, and consolidate the elementary and middle schools within the district.


The North Lawrence Community School District held a public work session on December 17, 2019, to discuss the plan recommended.


After the December 17, 2019, work session Dr, Ty Mungle modified the original recommendation and proposed an alternate plan to address concerns about not having an elementary school on the westside of the school district and to many students moved to the Bedford Middle School.


On January 6, 2020, the North Lawrence Community School Board approved the alternate plan which closed three elementary schools, and repurposed another elementary school building, moved 6th grade students back into the elementary schools back from the middle schools and reorganized and reduced from three middle schools to two junior high schools.


The school board did not discuss topics of the formation of the Visionary Committee recommendation of the Visionary Committee or school consolidation in executive session.


Former Springville Elementary School


What was omitted from the brief that at least three school board members attended the Visionary Committee sessions.


Any meetings of the North Lawrence Community School Board where the topic of the Visionary Committee and plans for school consolidation were discussed, were held in meetings open to the public in compliance with the Open Door Law.


Proper notice of all the meetings held by the North Lawrence Community School board for the calendar year in 2019 was given in accordance with the Open Door Law.


Any Visionary Committee information that Dr. Ty Mungle presented to the board was presented during open public meetings.


Visionary Committee members were told that their names would not be made public, and the committee meetings would not be open to the public because Indiana law did not require it.


Many of the members of the Visionary Commitee would not have agreed to volunteer to serve on the committee if their names would have been made public.


The Public Access Opinion


On November 19, 2019, the defendant Jason E. Johnson filed a complaint with the Indiana Public access Counselor alleging that the Visionary Committee violated the Indiana Open Door Public Access Law and that the meetings should have been open to the public.


On December 11, 2019, the North Lawrence Community Schools filed a response to Johnson's complaint arguing that the Visionary Committee was not a public agency, or governing body, and therefore, was not subject to the Open Door Law.


On January 7, 2020, the Indiana Public Access Counselor, Luke Britt issued an advisory opinion stating that he believed the Visionary Committee was a governing body and the Visionary Committee violated the " Open Door Law" by not allowing the public to observe the meetings.


On January 30, 2020, the North Lawrence Community School Corporation filed a verified petition for Judicial Review in the Lawrence County Circuit Court challenging the public access counselor's opinion.


The North Lawrence Community School Corporation sought to set aside the opinion arguing the opinion was the final order under the Indiana Administration Orders and Procedures Act subject to Judicial Review and the opinion was unsupported by evidence and contrary to law.


On August 7, 2020, the Lawrence County Circuit Court granted the Public Access Counselor motion to dismiss finding the public access counselor opinion was not a final order under the Indiana Administrative and Procedures Act and that the remedy at law that existed for North Lawrence Community School is by NLCS filing it complaint for Declaratory Judgement.


NORTH LAWRENC COMMUNITY SCHOOL COMPLAINT FOR DECLARATORY JUDGEMENT


The defendants served NLCS with a public records request seeking copies of public records from the Visionary Committee including the names, addresses of the committee members pursuant to Indiana Public Access Records Act.


As a result of the request the defendants public records request, NLCS filed a complaint for declaratory judgement on January 31, 2020, seeking a declaratory judgement from the court that the Visionary Committee was not a public agency or governing body.


The defendants Jerry Ford, and Deanna Ford filed their answer to NLCS Complaint for declaratory judgment on January 31, 2020, seeking an order requiring the release of all records requested and all records of the Visionary Committee as well as the names and addresses of the Visionary Committee members.


The remaining defendants were dismissed from the cause of action by the North Lawrence Community Schools


According to the brief summary judgment is appropriate only where the designated evidence shows that there is a issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.


NLCS maintains that the committee was appointed by the Superintendent and is not a public agency or governing body under the Indiana Open Door Law. Only the committees directly appointed by the governing body of an agency, or its presiding officer are required to hold open door meetings.


The NLCS maintains the public access counselor opinion was not supported by evidence.


In the complaint NLCS maintains that Jerry and Deanna Ford are not entitled to recovery attorney fees. The Indiana Open Door Law allows recovery only when certain conditions are met.


Stalker Elementary School has been repurposed into Playful Pathways which include a day care and pre-school


NLCS is seeking the court to declare the school corporation the Visionary Committee is not a public agency or governing body and order against Jerry and Deanna Ford and NLCS is requesting attorney fees against the Fords.


Both Jerry and Deana Ford must file a response or request a hearing in 30 days or demonstrate a need for extension of time or the court could issue a judgment without further notice or hearing.


Lawrence County Zephyr will monitor the developments in this story.


For breaking news, news and information go to lczephyr.org or like/follow the Lawrence County Zephyr Facebook page.


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