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Norfork School Board President Levi Woods may soon find himself out of a job on the Norfork Public Schools’ Board of Education following an election filing dispute with Baxter County Clerk Canda Reese.
Woods, who is currently serving his second term on the board in Position 2, filed a petition of writ seeking to be placed on this year’s ballot in the Circuit Court of Baxter County on Dec. 29 after Reese notified him in Nov. 2023 that he had incorrectly applied to run for office in Position 1 instead of his current position, making him disqualified from the election.
Stephanie Free is currently running unopposed for Position 2 of the Norfork Public Schools’ Board.
“I believe the voters in our district, not a clerical error, should decide who should be on the Norfork School Board,” said Woods in a prepared statement over the matter.
An alleged agreement to change positions
In his petition to the court, Woods alleges that in the Summer of 2023, confusion and discrepancies over whether Position 1 or Position 2 would be up for election in March 2024.
Woods, who states that he originally planned to run for Position 2, states that Norfork School District Superintendent Chip Layne held a phone call with him to discuss the five position numbers and which positions were up for re-election.
Superintendent Layne claims to have received a phone call from a deputy clerk within the Baxter County Clerk’s Office inquiring which position was up for re-election. Woods was identified as that candidate.
Layne also alleges that he was advised by a deputy clerk that a new order for school board positions would occur, and that Woods would now be in Position 1.
Under state law, school board positions can only be changed following the passing of a resolution by the school board itself. Following the passing of the resolution, the Baxter County Election Commission would have to hold its own vote to approve the position changes.
A look at the Norfork Public Schools’ Board of Education meeting minutes for every month in 2023 shows that no resolution was ever passed to legally change the positions of its board members within the district. No vote to approve the changing of the positions was ever held by the Baxter County Election Commission.
In multiple interviews with the Observer and in a legal filing of her own, Baxter County Clerk Canda Reese asserted that the alleged conversation between Layne and the deputy clerk never occurred.
Baxter County Deputy Clerk Lindsay Roberts, who also serves as the Election Coordinator for the Baxter County Election Commission, denied ever discussing changing board positions with Superintendent Lane. Roberts is responsible for overseeing the vast majority of election paperwork that runs through the County Clerk’s Office each year.
When asked about potentially switching the positions of the Norfork Public School Board, Roberts said that she did not have the power to make that decision or implement the change on the ballot.
Both Layne and Woods refused to say which deputy clerk within the Baxter County Clerk’s Office told them of the decision to change positions when asked by the Observer.
A FOIA request for communications between Layne and the Clerk’s Office only shows a brief email exchange between Roberts and Layne over Woods running for re-election. That email exchange can be seen below.
Following the alleged conversation about changing positions, Woods said he visited the Baxter County Courthouse on Nov. 13 to file his required petition and supporting documents for his bid for re-election.
His election filing shows that he filed for Position 1 on the Norfork Public School Board.
During the visit to file, Woods claims that he sat down with two staff members from the Clerk’s Office to go over his paperwork. After 10 minutes of going through the documents, those staff members confirmed that he was “good to go.”
A look at his filing documents shows that Baxter County Election Coordinator Lindsay Roberts notarized his filing on Nov. 13.
Woods alleges that he then asked about his position number one final time before leaving. He claims both staff members confirmed the number to him. Woods was then notified a week later that he was not eligible for this year’s election.
Under Ark. Code Ann. 6-114-111(e)(2)(a) “the county clerk shall not accept a candidate’s petition until the county clerk has verified that: the position on the board of directors that the candidate has indicated on the petition is scheduled to be filled during the current election.”
Woods argues that by signing off on his election filing during his Nov. 13 visit, Reese failed to “comply with 6-114-111(e)(2)(a) resulting in Petitioner’s reliance on false information when two staff members with the Clerk’s Office confirmed and verified the elections filings submitted by Petitioner, specifically that school board position No. 1 was ‘scheduled to be filled during the current election’ in March 2024, which was incorrect.”
Ark. Code Ann. 6-114-111(e)(2)(a) also requires County Clerks to reject petitions that do not conform to state law. Woods is currently the elected official for Position 2 and is required by law to run for that specific position to retain his seat on the Norfork Public School Board as it is the seat that is up for re-election, regardless of any alleged attempts or recommendations to rearrange position numbers within the district.
Reese responds to allegations in legal filing
On Jan. 11, Baxter County Prosecuting Attorney David Ethredge and Reese filed a response to Woods’s request to the court to place him on the ballot for the Position 2 race.
In the response, Reese admits that Roberts exchanged emails with Superintendent Layne but denies the allegation that a discussion over renumbering the positions on the Norfork Public Schools’ Board occurred.
Reese also admits that her staff members took Woods’s filings on Nov. 13 but states that her two deputies do not recall a discussion over the correct position number. Reese concedes that the discussion may have happened.
Reese also noted that Rule 10(d) of the Arkansas Rules of Civil Procedure requires that the documents referred to in Woods’s petition and that the petitioner must show that the documents were accepted, marked filed, by the Clerk’s Office on Nov. 13 to show that the documents were accepted and that at least 20 valid voters signed the petition.
She also notes in her response that Woods has a history of having issues during elections. Woods failed to vote for himself during his election to Position 2 a decade ago, resulting in him not being elected. At the time, Woods was running uncontested. State law requires that candidates receive at least one vote during an election, even if it is uncontested, for the candidate to be duly elected.
Uncontested candidates typically vote for themselves to ensure they are duly appointed to office. Woods did not cast a ballot and was not elected during that election. No other residents voted for Woods at the time. Following the error, he was appointed to the Norfork School Board before successfully winning a later election.
In addition to her response, Reese argued to the court in her response filing that placing Woods on the ballot would be “patently unfair” to Position 2 candidate Stephanie Free. Reese notes that she is unopposed and pursuant to Ark. Code Ann. 6-114-111(e)(2)(a) “the county board of election commissioners shall not place the name of an unopposed candidate for school district director on the ballot during a school board election held concurrently with the preferential primary election or general election” – which is the case for 2024.
Ballots for this year’s election have already been drawn by the Baxter County Election Commission. Reese notes that there is currently no remedy for her to correct the situation once the legal filing period has ended under state law.
In a prepared statement to the Observer, Reese said:
First of all, I am unaware of any discussion held with anyone from my office pertaining to changing the order of the board positions in Norfork School District, as has been alleged. When boards are initially established, lots are drawn to stagger the terms of the members. The order of the positions for Norfork has been consistent since prior to 2007. Positions can’t just be re-ordered, because other people are sitting in those other positions, and have been elected to a specific position for a specific number of years.
Secondly, Mr. Woods has served in Position 2 for the past ten years, so needless to say, when I went to certify the list of candidates for the primary, and saw that he’d filed for position 1, I was perplexed to say the least. I do wish that my staff would have caught that, and would have rejected his petition at the time he filed it. However, I have been unable to find any exception in the law that allows me to give Mr. Woods the opportunity to correct and re-file his petitions after the close of the filing period.
This is a developing story.