Bettendorf School District sued for blocking journalists from May meeting

Iowa Freedom of Information Council joined by WHBF, KWQC, WQAD and Quad-City Times
The Iowa Freedom of Information Council joined by KWQC, WQAD, WHBF and the Quad Cities Times sued the Bettendorf Community School District and its board of dire
Published: Aug. 2, 2022 at 3:59 PM CDT
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DAVENPORT, Iowa (KWQC) - The Iowa Freedom of Information Council joined by KWQC, WQAD, WHBF and the Quad Cities Times sued the Bettendorf Community School District and its board of directors Monday for blocking journalists from covering a meeting in May where parents expressed concern about violence in the district’s middle school.

The defendants are the school district and the seven members of its school board.

The lawsuit stems from a meeting held at the Waterfront Center on May 25, where around 200 to 300 parents with the majority of the members of the school board and Superintendent Michelle Morse attended, while school employees were at doors around the center keeping reporters and photographers from entering the meeting.

The gathering was held one day after the massacre at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, killed 21 students and teachers. The meeting was held following a recently completed school year where there were complaints from parents about the lack of response by the school officials to rowdy behavior that left some students and their parents fearful.

The lawsuit asks the Scott County District Court to find the school district in violation of Iowa’s open meetings law and to issue an injunction prohibiting the school board from violating the statute in the future. The lawsuit also asks the court to fine members of the board who took part in the meeting.

In a letter sent to Morse and school board president Rebecca Eastman a week after the May 25 meeting, the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and managers of the news companies expressed “profound disappointment” with Bettendorf officials’ decision to keep journalists from covering the meeting.

“The topic discussed on the evening of Wednesday, May 25, was one of the fundamental responsibilities of the Bettendorf Community School District — ensuring the safety and wellbeing of the district’s 4,700 students during each school day,” the letter stated.

The letter continued, “It would stretch believability to think that spending a couple of hours listening to the concerns of parents about the behavior of some Bettendorf Middle School students — including bullying and injuries suffered by students not otherwise involved in the incidents — does not fall within the meaning of deliberations on matters clearly within the scope of the Board of Education’s policy-making duties.”

Randy Evans, the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, said the authors of Iowa’s open meetings law recognized the important work journalists do in informing the public about the issues and problems government faces and the potential solutions. But that cannot occur when government officials deny journalists access to meetings like the one held in Bettendorf.

Evans said that the very first paragraph of the open meetings law states that any ambiguity in the interpretation of the statute should be resolved in favor of openness.

“The District was informed today that the Iowa Freedom of Information Council along with local media outlets have filed a lawsuit and issued a Press Release claiming the Bettendorf Community School District is in violation of Iowa’s open meeting laws, claiming a failure to allow journalists to document the Work Session,” Celeste Miller, spokeswoman of the school district, said. “We do not believe there is any validity to the claims.

“The District has presented the information obtained at the work session to the school board at its open meetings and will continue to do so. We remain committed to an open process in addressing concerns and appreciate the input as we continue to work on supports and improvements for our students and staff. We look forward to the start of a new school year!”

The full petition:

The full letter the Iowa Freedom of Information Council sent the school district:

Read Miller’s full statement to KWQC:

The safety and well-being of those within our schools remain a top priority as we welcome back students and staff for the 2022/2023 school year. We thank everyone who participated in the District’s parent Work Session on May 25, 2022. We had approximately 320 participants and gathered a great deal of feedback. The posters created at the Work Session are available on the District’s website at https://bit.ly/MS-May25WorkSession

Prior to the Work Session, some parents and staff had brought forward concerns in relation to student conduct. The concerns were shared with the Board and were the subject of local media stories. The May 25 Work Session was to provide a forum for parents, staff and interested community members to come together to discuss with each other the District’s strengths, weaknesses, solutions, and barriers. The intent was to facilitate open discussion and to allow participants to share freely about their students.

The District was informed today that the Iowa Freedom of Information Council along with local media outlets have filed a lawsuit and issued a Press Release claiming the Bettendorf Community School District is in violation of Iowa’s open meeting laws, claiming a failure to allow journalists to document the Work Session. We do not believe there is any validity to the claims.

The District has presented the information obtained at the Work Session to the School Board at its open meetings and will continue to do so. We remain committed to an open process in addressing concerns and appreciate the input as we continue to work on supports and improvements for our students and staff. We look forward to the start of a new school year!

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