Back-Door Deal Lands Schools in Court 

A local attorney has filed a lawsuit against the Richmond School Board for its refusal to provide public documents related to the resignation of Tom Sheeran, former schools assistant superintendent for finance and operations.

In a suit filed Tuesday in Richmond Circuit Court, John Butcher alleges that school officials have willfully and knowingly disregarded portions of two state Freedom of Information Act requests filed in January seeking Sheeran's amended employment contract and other related documents. Sheeran resigned Nov. 19, but his contract provided for his continued payment through March.

Butcher reached a settlement agreement in 2003 with Richmond Schools over a previous failure by the school system to adhere to its obligations under the state's open government law. That agreement required that city school employees undergo training on FOIA regulations.

His most recent suit also claims RPS has misrepresented facts around its possession of Sheeran's amended contract, as well as the first two pages of a letter from Sheeran's attorney suggesting the board amend a revised contract with their former employee. The revision, according to School Board sources, allows Sheeran to sue individual members of the board free of the legal protections afforded them by the state constitution as public officials.

On Thursday, schools administration released the full contents of the letter from Sheeran's attorney, but declined to release the remainder of the documents requested, including Sheeran's revised contract.

Butcher says he was told that the contract was not among the documents requested because it was never signed by the board.

"They're not even trying," says Butcher, vowing to continue with his suit.

And if the contract was never signed, why is the school system paying Sheeran through March (or May, as one source says the revised contract now reads)? "That's a good question," Butcher says.

The board voted at its last meeting to agree to Sheeran's attorney's demands in that letter, apparently piercing its own immunity in order to allow Sheeran to sue school board member Carol A.O. Wolf for defaming him. The first two pages of the letter, which Butcher provided to Style after he received it, relate to Sheeran's allegation that Wolf disclosed his resignation to media representatives earlier than promised.

The letter references news reports about Sheeran's departure that it claims were posted within hours of the board's vote to accept his resignation. Style's story was not posted until the afternoon of Nov. 20, the first media report to verify his resignation, and relied on a number of anonymous School Board sources. One had revealed days before Nov. 19 that Sheeran planned to resign.

In his court filing, Butcher, who has made a practice of acting as a watchdog on RPS spending, indicates that part of his reason for requesting the information on Sheeran's resignation is to monitor the School Board's continued spending on an employee who left under duress.

"Since the November 15, 2007 pay date, the School Board has paid Sheeran $21,529.20, virtually all of which appears to be unearned," Butcher's suit reads. "If the payments continue to March 31, 2008, the unearned total will approach $48,440.70."

In addition to requesting the documents, Butcher's suit asks the court to "impose

remedies to correct the current violations and to assure that the School Board will eschew

its lawless behavior in the future."


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