GEORGE COUNTY, Miss. (WKRG) – A new motion filed by the George County School District in a federal lawsuit would ban two new school board members from certain meetings, if approved.
The motion was made in the lawsuit filed by former superintendent Pam Touchard alleging the school board violated her First Amendment right to freedom of speech.
She alleges the district’s board of education discriminated against her by denying her any employment opportunity after her term as superintendent ended and other retaliatory measures after she reported staff-sanctioned cheating to the state in 2019.
Two new school board members will take office in January after winning their races in November. Matthew Smith defeated District 1 incumbent Jessie Ludgood. Maria Clanton won a three-way race for the open seat in District 2.
Attorneys for the school district say both incoming board members have relationships to Touchard that could unfairly harm the district’s side of the lawsuit and potentially violate attorney-client privilege.
The motion argues that Smith is “known to be a personal friend of [Touchard]” and GCSD “cannot prevent friends from interacting, and the present litigation in which both sides of the friendship are involved in some fashion is a natural topic of conversation.”
Clanton is on a list submitted to the court by Touchard with 42 names of persons “now known to Plaintiff with discoverable information.” In its motion, GCSD refers to the document as a witness list for Touchard.
Attorneys representing GCSD say Clanton’s presence in school board discussions of the lawsuit would “provide a direct pipeline to Plaintiff [Touchard] of privileged discussions held by the defendant, as if Plaintiff herself or her attorney were sitting in on the discussions.”
The motion asks the court to approve a protective order that would ban Clanton and Smith from executive sessions of school board meetings that discuss the lawsuit.
Executive sessions are called during public meetings, like those of the school board, for members to discuss matters such as pending litigation, individual personnel and student issues or real estate transactions — matters that state law acknowledges require confidentiality.
The school district’s attorneys told the court their request to exclude Clanton and Smith from executive sessions is “unique” and GCSD could not find any precedent set in federal court “bearing even a substantial similarity to the present context or facts.”
In response, Touchard’s attorneys told the court: “Plaintiff cannot be silent as defense counsel seeks to deprive the citizens of George County of their right to vote by excluding their duly-elected school board members from participating in official business. Ironically, by presenting this Motion to the Court, defense counsel has highlighted the problematic behavior of the Defendant – attempting to silence voices that may disagree with the wrongful conduct of certain members of the George County School Board – that led to the filing of this action.”
Touchard is asking the court to deny the motion and hold a hearing to determine whether “the Defendant [GCSD] and its counsel have an irrevocable conflict which will impede the orderly and timely disposition of the lawsuit.”
It is unclear when a federal judge could issue a decision or if it will come before the first school board meeting of the new term on January 3, 2023.
As of publication, there are no scheduled court hearings in the case. A jury trial is tentatively set for November 2023.
Touchard’s witness list also includes superintendent Wade Whitney, school board president Barkley Henderson, and board member Mike Steede. They are not named in the motion to be excluded from executive sessions.
Clanton is included on the list as a former GCSD teacher and administrator, along with dozens of other current and former district employees.
The list also includes two people that reported staff-sanctioned cheating on a high school credit recovery test and various employees of the Mississippi Department of Education that conducted an investigative audit that moved the district to its current Probation status.
The final person on the witness list is “a mother who took test home for her daughter” in what appears to be an additional allegation of cheating, separate from the account that sparked the state audit. The person listed, whose identity WKRG is not revealing due to privacy concerns, has not appeared in previous documents reviewed by WKRG.
State investigators previously wrote of concerns that more seniors may have graduated only because other students took credit recovery exams for them.
The inclusion of the people on Touchard’s list does not necessarily mean they will be called as a witness at trial or compelled to testify.
Full potential witness list:
WKRG has independently redacted the names of three individuals from the list that are named to protect the privacy of the minors and their families.