The Russellville School District’s response to an April 21 Freedom of Information request following the firing of Superintendent Mark Gotcher raises more questions than it answers.
On Monday, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge issued her opinion on whether or not the documents requested by The Courier were subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
The district’s law firm, Eldredge and Clark, released some documents on April 27 in response to a Freedom of Information request filed by The Courier on April 21. However, the firm did not release any of Gotcher’s personnel records.
“While the Russellville School District believes that it must disclose the evaluation records regarding the decision to place Dr. Mark Gotcher on administrative leave and the subsequent decision to terminate his contract, the District will seek an Attorney General opinion regarding its determination,” attorney Khayyam Eddings wrote in an email April 26.
The attorney general’s 10-page opinion concluded that “the custodian’s decision to release the employee’s recent evaluation record and his personnel records is consistent with the FOIA.”
Attorney General Rutledge noted “the custodian needed to make additional redactions to the personnel records and possibly remove other redactions from the personnel records.”
On Tuesday afternoon, Eddings forwarded the attorney general’s opinion and 200 pages of personnel records from Gotcher’s time as an employee at the Russellville School District, with some documents dating back to the early 1990s.
Missing from the released documents were those files specifically requested in the FOI request of April 21 pertaining to the firing.
The FOI request asked for “copies of all texts, emails and any other electronic correspondence, as well as any written records, letters, notes, documentation of disciplinary actions and documentation of termination.”
A handful of emails and texts from patrons to board members were released, but no correspondence between the board and Gotcher, or between the board discussing Gotcher, were released.
The request also sought any transcripts, documents or voice recordings of the Russellville School Board executive sessions held April 20.
Missing from the released documents was any documentation of Gotcher’s termination, or any significant disciplinary files showing cause for his contract to be canceled.
Attempts to contact the School Board’s attorney Tuesday and Wednesday for further information about the missing documents were unsuccessful.
On April 20, the School Board voted 5-2 to put Gotcher on administrative leave for the remainder of the year, and then voted 5-2 to terminate his employment contract in June.
Reasons for Gotcher’s sudden termination on April 20 were suggested, but not elaborated upon, in text messages released April 27 as part of the FOI request.
“There is a reason but there is also an accumulation of bad situation over last 2 years,” an unidentified board member replied to a texted question about Gotcher’s termination.
The same answer was repeated a few times throughout various texts.
However, that answer was not substantiated by the records released from the school district.
The most recent evaluation for Gotcher was included in the released documents, but it had no comments or notes of concern.
The evaluation dated Feb. 1, 2021, was a simple five-category evaluation with a point-based score. There were 20 evaluation points in five categories, and each board member scored Gotcher in the categories. The scoring is anonymous, but apparently six board members completed the evaluation. Scores were 1 (unsatisfactory), 2 (needs improvement), 3 (meets expectations) and 4 (exceeds expectations).
For example, one scorer gave Gotcher five 4s, and 15 3s. Another gave him three 4s, 15 rates of 3s and two 2s. Another gave him four 3s, five 2s and 12 rates of 1s.
There were six scorers in all, and the average for his evaluation was 2 (needs improvement). Gotcher scored an average of 4 in the category of Educational Leadership in the topic of “Understands and keeps informed regarding all aspects of educational issues in our state and nation.”
He received 3s (meets expectations) in the rest of the Educational Leadership topics – “Maintains a sound philosophy of the educational needs of our state,” “Has the respect of educational leaders of our state,” and “Has a good working relationship with the political leaders of our state.”
Gotcher was also scored as a 3 under Personal Qualities for the characteristic “Devotes time and energy to his job,” and under Business and Finance for “Evaluates financial needs and makes recommendations for adequate funding.”
The rest of his scores on evaluation points were 2s (needs improvement) in the Personal Qualities and Business and Finance categories.
He received all 2s in the categories Relations with the Board and Staff and Personnel Relationships.
Evaluations from the two preceding years, 2019 and 2018, were completely redacted as were several earlier evaluations. Currently there is no record showing whether Gotcher’s job performance leading up to the 2020 evaluation and subsequent firing in 2021 was due to ongoing problems.