Mountain Home Public School Board Member Bob Chester has become the first school board member to release a public statement following the exposure of the school board’s secret group chat and FOIA violation.
In a roughly 30 minute long video posted to YouTube Wednesday night, Chester denied that the school board had discussed policy in the chat group, stating that only a “ethics violation” had occurred.
In addition to those claims, Chester claimed a group email from Mark Howson of the Baxter County Citizens Watch asking members of the board to answer a series of questions constituted a secret meeting.
Chester then proceeded to display and discuss a multitude of emails, while also doxing Howson’s and MH Watchdog Melissa Klinger’s personal email addresses.
“We’ve just had some ethics violations,” Chester said in the opening of his video. “The school board was on a group text, not discussing school business, but it was an ethics violation.”
Yet, text messages from the group itself prove that claim otherwise.
In an early April 4th and 5th discussion in the school board’s group chat, Mountain Home Public School Board President Dan Smakal and School Board Vice President Lisa House held a policy discussion with Mountain Home Public School Superintendent Jake Long over implementation of the LEARNS Act.
The Act, which has received popular support from Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders, would raise the minimum salary for teachers to $50,000 regardless of experience, as well as an additional $2,000 raise for those already making over $50,000 a year.
Any additional raises would have to come out of the district’s budget, making it difficult to plan ahead as details surrounding the act were still being worked out.
In the text exchange, Long told the board that they would be receiving $1.5 million to implement and that he would recommend freezing all other schedules and doing a one time retention bonus from other funds. Both Smakal and House then chime in with questions of their own.
“So, if we get $20 million from taxpayer dollars, $30 million from per student government money, and budget is $35 million, what do we do with the extra,” asked House.
Long responded by saying, “After ppc meeting yesterday, I recommend freeze current schedules, fulfill the implementation of Learns bill – everyone makes 50k plus 2,000 for those over 50. Spend a year studying it.”
It should be noted that Long had asked the board to suspend discussions over salaries during March’s board meeting following discussions with Madison Ingle of the Certified Personnel Policy Committee.
The school district’s current salary schedule consists of 28 increases or “vertical steps” they can receive while working in Mountain Home. For each year a teacher works, they increase one step, with the pay increase coming into effect on July 1. There are also “differentials” which take into account each teacher’s education level, as well as any additional graduate level hours they have completed.
With the implementation of the LEARNS Act, many of the school district’s veteran teachers could find themselves earning the same amount of money as peers who have less education or experience as themselves, reducing incentive for them to remain within the school district.
During last Thursday’s school board meeting, Long gave a presentation of the LEARNS Act to the public, presenting several potential plans to school board members for them to preview, potentially giving the appearance that his recommendations were being presented before them for the first time.
“The first thing within your copies is our current license salary schedule,” Long said. “Beyond that are all other different, just, ideas. I don’t even want to call them you know, proposals or anything.”
When asked over the phone why Chester opened his video by claiming that the school district did not talk about policy in their secret group chat, he responded that he “misspoke.”
When pressed further on why he presented both Mark Howson and Melissa Klinger’s personal email accounts to the public, Chester responded that they were public because of FOIA and that they could “sue me.”
While the emails from Howson and Klinger are obtainable through FOIA requests to the school district, it is usually considered common courtesy for government bodies to redact contact information of regular private citizens when using emails or documents containing that information for official use in a presentation or display to avoid the appearance of doxing.
Doxing is the revelation of a person’s private information online without their consent, usually intentionally, and sometimes maliciously. This includes the sharing of phone numbers, home addresses, identification numbers and essentially any sensitive and previously private information such as personal photos that could make someone identifiable and potentially exposed to further harassment, humiliation and real-life threats including stalking and unwanted encounters in person.
When asked if he was aware of Chester’s video and its content, School Board President Dan Smakal rebuked the act stating, “I believe we as a board need to do what is lawful and go over issues that we as a school have in a posted, public meeting before informing the world.”
Smakal also remarked on Chester’s statement that the school board had not discussed policy in its chat group by saying, “The text has been brought forward already and has been documented and brought to public attention from what I understand at this time. We as a board will move forward with required legal training in this to make sure these kinds of incidents do not happen again.”
Smakal confirmed that the school board is looking at having a refresher course on FOIA law during the district’s next school board meeting.
After his initial statements, Chester requested to retract his statements, while attempting to clarify what he had said.
Chester said that he did not remember having policy conversations in the chat group but acknowledged that they could have happened. When asked if he still had his text messages, Chester stated that he regularly deletes messages from his phone, a common theme among members of the school board.
“I just watched the end of the video and at the end I addressed FOIA and did not talk about ethics,” Chester said. “But said, rather, I apologized, and I did not know the extent of the law. I also said that we were going to address the FOIA training issue. Nowhere did I take this issue lightly. I had to edit the video before I posted it because I didn’t have all the papers I wanted but the video has not been edited since I posted it. As for my statement about a group email with all board members, I would want a legal clarification, but I have no intention to be a part of any group email or text in the future whether it’s legal or not. As far as the email address being shared, it is available to anyone who wants to ask for it and writes this is a FOIA request as it is public information.”
At time of writing the video has been viewed 945 times: