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Schools chief had background check run on person who requested info

CLAY County Schools Superintendent Jerry Linkinoggor knows most folks in the county.

So when a person came to the Board of Education office in Clay in October, asked for the superintendent's employment contract and declined to identify himself, Linkinoggor became suspicious.

"It was real eerie and real scary," Linkinoggor recalled. "He came close to being escorted out of here by the sheriff."

Linkinoggor was one of six county school superintendents in West Virginia who refused to release copies of their contracts during an audit to determine how well county officials comply with the state's Freedom of Information Act. Superintendent contracts detail salaries and fringe benefits.

The superintendents criticized the audit, saying it was unprofessional because those who requested the document refused to state a reason. However, state law does not require people who want public information to identify themselves or to cite a reason for their request.

The county school leaders also said the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks made them and their employees "jumpy" about people they didn't know.

Linkinoggor, for instance, had a sheriff's deputy run a criminal background check on the person who requested his contract. Linkinoggor said the person belonged to the American Civil Liberties Union and lived in St. Albans. His record was clean.

Children were playing on two playgrounds outside the board office when the auditor visited, Linkinoggor said.

"We're just real protective here," Linkinoggor said. "We were upset the way this was done. It was an invasion. We'll be cooperative if people cooperate with us."

More than half of superintendents visited during the audit declined to release their contracts until presented with a Freedom of Information Act letter.

"There's a sensitivity about superintendents' contracts," said Howard O'Cull, executive director of the West Virginia School Boards Association. "But they have to realize this is public information, and they should be willing to release it."

O'Cull's organization doesn't provide training in FOIA because board members rarely receive such requests. Those usually go to the superintendents. O'Cull said the association may start distributing information about FOIA to board members.

The West Virginia Association of School Administrators also doesn't provide formal training about the act to superintendents, said executive director Fred Radabaugh.

Superintendents already should understand the law, he said.

"Most everything we do is public information," Radabaugh said.

In Wyoming County, Superintendent Frank Blackwell declined to mail a copy of his contract to the person who requested it. Instead, he sent a "nice" letter, saying the auditor could inspect it in his office. The person never came.

"I don't have to make a copy of it," said Blackwell, who was cited for not complying with the request in the audit tally.

Blackwell said staff members plugged the person's name and address into an Internet "people finder." There was a different person listed at the address, he said.

"This upset my people," Blackwell said. "If somebody wants information, they ought to be able to tell you who they are. This wasn't done in such a way that anybody would want to be helpful."

Mark Manchin, Webster County superintendent at the time, wasn't in his office when an auditor requested his contract. He praised his secretaries for not releasing the information. He refused to send it later.

"I told them, ‘You don't give that,'" said Manchin, who now serves as McDowell County superintendent. "The whole thing was bad. Everybody was jumpy."

Wood County Superintendent Dan Curry acknowledged he became "defensive" about the request for his contract. The auditor also asked for a copy of his evaluation at the same time.

Curry released the contract after he received an FOIA letter. But he declined to release his evaluation, saying it was exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.

Instead, he gave the person a copy of the meeting minutes of the school board, whose members gave a statement about his performance.

"FOIA is not intended to be a ‘gotcha' kind of provision," Curry said. "It's intended to make information available."

Curry also said he called the person who made the request to see whether he had questions.

"It may be interpreted as further screening," Curry said. "But we wanted to make sure he understood it. This kind of information is easily misinterpreted."

The state Department of Education keeps records of superintendent salaries for all 55 counties. But it does not maintain a file on superintendents' contracts.

To contact staff writer Eric Eyre, use e-mail or call 348-5194.


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