District attorney declines complaint against TISD

An attorney for Smith County said there is insufficient evidence to pursue legal action against Tyler Independent School District for alleged violations of the Texas Public Information Act.

The decision comes 11 days after The Tyler Loop filed a complaint claiming school officials failed to provide requested material or respond to official requests on three separate occasions.

All the requests pertained to the district’s review of certain library books. 

Among the information requested was a list of books school officials removed for review but the school’s attorney, John M. Hardy, said a list does not exist and state law does not require school officials to create one.

Assistant District Attorney Thomas Wilson agreed.

“Based on the response provided by the District and the information you provided, we do not believe that such action [declaratory judgment or injunctive relief] is warranted at this time,” Wilson wrote in a March 1 letter to The Tyler Loop’s executive director Jane Neal.

Neal said she believes The Tyler Loop has legitimate and defensible complaints against TISD and seeking compliance was important and valuable.

“Life in a democracy — where residents have information from public systems led by public servants — demands access and transparency,” she said. “Our complaints raised awareness among our readers about the critical need for such access and transparency.”

The initial request filed by the The Tyler Loop on Dec. 14 requested “a list of books being considered for removal or have been removed from Tyler school libraries due to sexually explicit content, ‘vulgar’ content or content deemed unsuitable for young readers.”

Yolonda Moore, the district’s designated public information officer, responded to the request on Jan. 11 — the last day of the 10-day window generally allowed under the law — with an invoice charging the Tyler Loop $15 for labor in “searching, receiving, reviewing, compiling and redactions.” 

The school district waived the fee at The Tyler Loop’s request and provided the news organization with a link to the Texas Tribune which had published a book list distributed by state Rep. Matt Krause.

“The list is utilized as a resource for the District’s process,” Moore wrote in her response.

She also noted the review process was continuing.

“We are actively looking for books that violate or meet Board Policy EF (LEGAL) which may or may not be on the list,” she said. “At this point, books have been pulled for review only. Tyler does not have all titles within our district.”

In a revised request, The Tyler Loop sought the names of persons serving on the book review committee, any written instructions given to the committee, the time and date of its meetings and any minutes recorded of the meetings. 

Moore did not respond with any information based on this request, with Hardy later contending none of the information existed.

“There are not District records to provide in response to any of these requests for one very simple reason: no committee has been formed, no instructions have been issued, and no meetings have been held,” he said.

On Jan. 26, The Tyler Loop requested any and all “emails, texts, instant messages or letters pertaining to the review, study, removal of or discussion about books or other media maintained in the district’s libraries … including written comments, directions, inquiries, discussions, instructions, comments or complaints.”

In Hardy’s Feb. 28 letter, he suggests The Tyler Loop clarify or narrow the scope of its request to speed the process of compliance. 

“The breadth of your request is enormous, which impacts the time required to respond accordingly,” he said.

Wilson also noted the district “indicates that they are working to process your subsequent for email correspondence dated Jan. 26.” 

Under the Texas Public Information, a government entity may request clarification of vague or overly broad requests. However, it is the responsibility of that entity to inform the requestor if the information cannot be provided within 10 days.

“If an officer for public information cannot produce public information for inspection or duplication within ten business days after the date of information is requested, sect 552.221(d) requires the officer to ‘certify that fact in writing to the requestor and set a date and hour within a reasonable time when the information will be available for inspection or duplication,” according to the state’s law.

Moore did not notify The Tyler Loop that the information could not be provided within 10 days.

Neal said the news organization will continue to follow legal protocols to seek information.

“It is how we produce content to share with our readers,” she said. “Our Loop board and officials are committed to revealing our region’s challenges and opportunities — including those within TISD.”

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Vanessa E. Curry is a journalist with nearly 35 years of experience as a writer, editor and instructor. She earned a B.S. degree in Mass Communication from Illinois State University and a MSIS degree from The University of Texas at Tyler with emphasis on journalism, political science and criminal justice. She has worked newspaper in Marlin, Henderson, Tyler and Jacksonville, Texas as well as in Columbia Tennessee. Vanessa also was a journalism instructor at the UT-Tyler and Tennessee Tech University. Her writing has been recognized by the State Bar of Texas, Texas Associated Press Managing Editors, Dallas Press Club, and Tennessee Press Association. She currently is working on publishing two books: "Lies and Consequences: The Trials of Kerry Max Cook," and "A Gold Medal Man, A biography of Kenneth L. "Tug" Wilson.