Most of the Oklahoma City Public Schools Board of Education members were engaged in a highly unusual inter-board struggle in the courtroom of District Judge Richard C. Ogden Monday.
When they started, it was only two hours until the next regular meeting of the board, so anxious looks at the clock in the courtroom were far more frequent than usual.
In question was a petition by District 1 Board member Charles Henry that requested the court issue a restraining order against OKCPS BOE Chair Paula Lewis to stop the board from taking action on a single agenda item for the upcoming meeting only minutes away.
The cryptic agenda item might have left some mystified as to what was supposed to happen, but it did have an ominous appearance.
Discussion and/or action, if any, relating to a confidential communication with the District’s legal counsel regarding a pending investigation and possible discipline of District 1 Board Member
If passed, the item could have resulted in Henry being officially and publicly censured by the board. And, the vote would have been taken without board members Rebecca Budd and Jace Kirk. Both were out of town.
With only 30 minutes to spare, Ogden issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting the OKCPS BOE from taking up the agenda item until the matter could be heard in depth later. The order is in effect for ten days from Monday.
The term “restraining order” can apply to a directive by the court to not do a particular action. Restraining orders are either temporary or permanent.
Restraining order petition
Free Press has obtained a copy of the petition.
Henry’s petition for the temporary restraining order lists as defendants Paula Lewis, board chair, as well as “Oklahoma City School Board”. It also lists Superintendent Sean McDaniel and the district’s General Counsel Jessica Sherrill as defendants.
In the petition, Henry asked the court “to grant this restraining order to prevent immediate and irreparable injury” to him.
Also in the petition, Henry asked the court to restrain Lewis from “continuing to publicly humiliate, harass, intimidate, threaten, and to commit further improper acts against him to restrict him from exercising his free speech…” in violation of the Oklahoma Constitution.
Henry argues in the petition that notice of the agenda item was so late it would not give him an opportunity to prepare a response.
“Petitioner did not receive the notice that it was placed on the agenda until last Friday, June 21, 2019 at 3:09 p.m.,” Henry’s petition read.
Henry’s argument in the petition was that Lewis was attempting to restrict Henry’s “constitutional right to free speech by threatening him and wrongfully attempting to discipline him….”
It is not clear if Henry will petition for a permanent restraining order.
Henry testified in the hearing that he thought the board was planning the action to “publicly censor me” and that “it’s stressful to me and my family” to even have the potential of being disciplined by the board.
But, Laura Holmes, an attorney for OKCPS, argued that Henry had violated policies that prompted the board to take up the matter. Her argument was that through a series of posts on Twitter, mostly about the naming of the building Classen SAS is about to move into on the east side, Henry had given the impression that he was representing the district when he was only giving his own personal opinion.
Henry’s Twitter handle is “@henryokcpsboard” and seemed to be at the center of the district’s complaints as argued in the hearing.
Holmes argued that the way Henry had handled interactions on Twitter was “out of line” and shouldn’t be representing the board.
When the district’s general counsel, Jessica Sherrill, was put on the stand she explained that their investigation had started on the evening of the previous regular board meeting June 10 after two known persons had approached her and complained about Henry’s online speech.
She also said there was one anonymous complaint sent to her and that Superintendent Sean McDaniel had asked her to investigate.
Henry’s legal counsel, Ronald “Skip” Kelley, cross-examined Sherrill.
Sherrill revealed that “I’m not really on Twitter” when she was asked several questions about what she had seen.
Kelley pressed her on who had done the investigation asking if she had employed a social media specialist to do a forensic investigation.
Sherrill said that the district’s Media Relations Department had done the social media investigation and had provided “almost 80 pages” of print-outs of interactions Henry had engaged in on social media.
But, the district did not believe that Henry’s social media interactions were the only concern. Sherrill testified that there had been a “barrage of emails” from Henry that caused concern.
Kelley’s counter to those assertions was that his client was simply exercising free speech.
He also argued that as a public official, Henry and anyone else in public life will be the target of complaints.
The officials said that Henry’s behavior violated the district’s “Policy B-11” which sets up the procedure for disciplining a board member who has violated board policy.
The policy sets a series of three escalating actions to discipline a board member who is believed to have violated board policy.
The first is a private conversation. Then, escalating to the second step involves taking up the matter in executive session. If the board sees a need to escalate further, they can vote in open session to censure the board member.
All board members receive training on board policies and state law relating to public school boards.
This is how Policy B-11 appears in the online version of the policy manual.
Henry claims that the first step of the three was not adequately taken and was surprised to find the board was moving to the second step.
After the board meeting later that evening, the district issued the following statement:
Because the Executive Session agenda item in question could still be considered by our Board of Education for discussion at some point in the future, OKCPS cannot comment at this time. We look forward to working through the legal process to find a timely resolution.
Charles Henry told Free Press that he had been instructed to say nothing else to the media about the matter.
Henry’s attorney Ronald Kelley could not be reached for an update by publication.