COLUMBIA - Columbia Public Schools is breaking the law by refusing to release information regarding its search for land for the district’s third main high school, two experts on the Missouri Sunshine Law say.
The school board approved a recommendation in June from Superintendent Phyllis Chase to locate the district’s new high school on 80 acres at Rangeline and New Haven roads. The property was owned by Turner Vemer, who donated half and sold the other half for $500,000.
Chase told the Missourian that she and Chris Mallory, a consultant to the district on land acquisitions, had contacted 10 to 12 other landowners about the possibility of acquiring land for the school but that no other property was available. On July 16, the Missourian submitted a formal letter to the school district requesting access to information about other landowners contacted by the district. School administrators, however, refused to provide the information, saying it was a closed record.
In a written response three days after the Missourian request, Assistant Superintendent Lynn Barnett stated that the district would not provide the newspaper with the requested records because the district is “always in the process of looking at locating land that would be appropriate for building schools or other related structures in Columbia.”
The district cited a section of the Missouri Sunshine Law that states records can be closed regarding the purchasing of land where public knowledge of the transaction might adversely affect the legal consideration of the transaction.
But because the transaction between Vemer and the district had been completed with a contract on Dec. 14, 2006, records related to it and to the larger search for high school land are open to the public under the Sunshine Law, said Charles Davis, executive director of the Freedom of Information Center at the MU School of Journalism. The group helps the public with questions about accessing government documents and information.
The Sunshine Law states: “Any minutes, vote or public record approving a contract relating to the leasing, purchase or sale of real estate by a public governmental body shall be made public upon execution of the lease, purchase or sale of the real estate.”
District officials can no longer withhold information about this transaction, even if they might use the same information for a future transaction, said attorney Jean Maneke, who represents the Missouri Press Association and routinely handles Sunshine Law cases.
“It’s public information to know what (the district) considered,” Maneke said. “They can’t predict who will sell to them in some future transaction.”
Although Maneke doesn’t name Columbia Public Schools, she posted a blog entry on Aug. 1 about a school district in Missouri that is “playing games with the public.” Her blog is at mosunshine.typepad.com.
Although Maneke would not confirm that her blog entry is about Columbia Public Schools, the details and circumstances match.
“This is not a gray area,” Maneke wrote. “Even if this was a close call, there is case law that makes it clear how this should be handled. A court said a few years ago that in situations where something could be open or closed, the sunshine law makes it clear that the ruling must be for openness. ...
“Makes you wonder just what they are hiding, doesn’t it?” Maneke wrote. “Could it be there’s no list to produce? Surely that’s not the case, or is it? Only one way to find out. Release the records. Quit playing games.“
The Vemer site is three miles outside Columbia city limits. City and county officials, as well as some members of the public, have criticized the decision given the lack of streets, sewer and other infrastructure at the site.
Although Chase said no other appropriate property was available for the high school, several landowners in the northeast quadrant of the school district said they were never contacted about the prospect of selling or donating land. For example, Jay Turner, who owns almost 1,000 acres in that area, said he wished the district had contacted him.
“There’s something about a school and a church that everyone wants to be a part of,” Turner said.
John and Carol Alspaugh own about 200 acres. John Alspaugh said that he would consider talking with the school district about selling part of his land for a school but that he, too, was never contacted.
Wendell Henrikson said that to his knowledge, nobody in his family had been contacted about the 240 acres they own, either.
George Godas this weekend told the Missourian that he would donate 40 to 50 of his 212 acres to the district, and that he would sell more of it for $18,000 to $20,000 per acre. He said he made a similar offer to the district two years ago but was turned down.
Missourian reporter Kendra Lueckert contributed to this report.