Thursday, December 11, 2014

Commissioner finalist failed to tell school board about $250,000+ in legal fees

One of the five finalists for Missouri Commissioner of Education kept his school board in the dark about a quarter of a million dollars in taxpayer money spent to keep a Gay-Straight Alliance organization from forming in his school district.

The legal battle took place when former Springfield Superintendent Norm Ridder, now the interim superintendent in the Mehlville School District, was superintendent of the Colorado Springs D-11 School District, the fourth biggest public school district in the state.

When a Gay-Straight Alliance, a group which attempts to help straight and gay youngsters to understand each other and get along, tried to form at Palmer High School, Ridder fought it and worked with the Colorado-based Focus on the Family and the Alliance Defense Fund to keep the group from forming.

Beginning in 1999, principals turned down several attempts to start the organization.

In December 2003, seven Palmer High School students, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, filed a lawsuit, claiming that the district was violating the federal Equal Access Act.

Ridder's dealings were outlined in this passage from the May 26, 2005, Colorado Springs Independent:

On Feb. 11, 2004, board president Shakes sent an e-mail to her colleagues and other top D-11 administrators: "I have heard about Focus on the Family or other organizations that may help with the legal fees, where are we on that issue?" Three days later, superintendent Ridder responded, notifying the board that he had met with two representatives from Focus on the Family, and that "they are working with [the district's lawyer, Stuart Lark] on the Palmer case."

Ridder later testified in court that Focus didn't end up contributing money toward the district's defense in the lawsuit. The district's June 29, 2004, grant application to the Alliance Defense Fund, seeking to offset the costs of the lawsuit, was rejected later that summer, on Aug. 10. But it appears Ridder didn't inform the board of the ADF's decision -- nor clarified that district taxpayers were footing the legal bill -- until seven months later.

At this year's March 30 board meeting, members expressed surprise when they were asked to transfer $200,000 from the General Fund to help defray the district's mounting legal bills, mainly associated with the Palmer lawsuit.

Director Eric Christen said he thought the Alliance Defense Fund was covering the costs of the lawsuit; Ridder told his bosses that the application for funding had actually been rejected. He indicated that he had "thought" he sent an e-mail informing the board of the news, but Christen, along with other board members, insisted they had never seen Ridder's claimed correspondence and asked for a detailed accounting of the litigation costs the district had accumulated.

This month, in response to a request filed under Colorado's Open Records law, the district's custodian of records, Deb Key, said Ridder never sent the requested information to the board either before the March 30 meeting or after it was specifically requested by elected board members.

As of March 31, Key said the school district had paid nearly $250,000 in legal costs related to the Palmer High School litigation and student club policy, not including the amount of D-11 staff time spent on the issue. The district has refused to provide billing documents detailing the work done so far.

The quarter of a million plus did not help the Colorado Springs School District in the lawsuit. Eventually, the district ended up paying $90,000 to the ACLU lawyers, a symbolic $10 to the students, and the Gay-Straight Alliance was formed at Palmer High School.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It would appear that corrupt, self-serving administrators are the norm these days. Schools will never get better as long as the likes of this monster and CJ Huff are in charge. It's an argument for homeschooling, and no fault of the teachers. The system is set up to keep them from being successful. It's all about appearances and not at all about learning.