Freshwater Day 31: A School Board Member’s Ethics Problem

| 64 Comments

The 31st day of the administrative hearing on whether John Freshwater should be terminated as a Mt. Vernon Middle School science teacher was supposed to be today, but after 2 hours and 15 minutes of private conferences among the attorneys and referee the hearing was abruptly adjourned until January 22, 2010.

In addition, I have learned that a new member of the Board of Education, Steve Thompson, has started engaging in private efforts to produce a settlement without authorization or discussion by the Board of Education, thereby exposing the Board to significant legal jeopardy. Both are described below the fold.

Another Postponement

The full text of the statement made for the record by the referee was as follows (courtesy of the court reporter). This is the entirety of the on-the-record proceedings today:

We’re going to go on the record here at 11:16 by the clock on the wall for the purpose of entering a statement, which I’m going to make, into the record that is as follows:

“Even though this proceeding is not bound by the Civil Rules of Procedure, in the spirit of those it is my opinion that if we were to proceed today it very well might create an unfair advantage to one side or the other, and in an effort to avoid that circumstance, we’re going to conclude the proceedings for today and reconvene one week from today, 9:00 a.m., Friday, January 22, 2010.”

Neither the MSM reporters nor I were able to get any comment from the Board’s attorney about what might have led to that statement. My own private opinion is that once again the dog ate R. Kelly Hamilton’s homework: I suspect he was not ready for the Board’s rebuttal case. Another hypothesis from a spectator at the hearing is that R. Kelly Hamilton, Freshwater’s attorney, has “new information” and wants to re-open his case. I dunno. R. Kelly seems to think he’s Perry Mason.

On the schedule today was the windup of cross examination of John Freshwater and the beginning of the Board’s rebuttal case. David Millstone, the attorney for the Board of Education, had a number of witnesses scheduled to testify today in the rebuttal case, including two former members of the Board of Education who were in office when Freshwater offered his Intelligent Design Network Objective Origins Science Policy to govern the science curriculum in biology, a proposal that was rejected by the Board of Education in 2003. Now all those witnesses and the witnesses scheduled to testify January 22 will have to be rescheduled.

A Board Member’s Ethics Problem

Earlier this week two new Members of the Mt. Vernon Board of Education, Paula Barone and Steve Thompson, were sworn in. Thompson has been a public supporter of John Freshwater’s efforts to retain his position and prevail in the various lawsuits that are under way. In fact, Thompson has been a member of a group formed specifically to raise money for Freshwater’s legal defense fund, the so-called “Community Council for Free Expression.” It is of no little interest that a link to that group which was formerly on a site called bibleonthedesk.com, set up to publicize Freshwater’s side of the issue, has been removed, probably because attention was drawn to Thompson’s conflict of interest during the Board election campaign. However, thanks to the Internet Archive that page is still available, and while the link has been removed the page is still accessible via the bibleonthedesk site. Just for the record I’ve archived that, too.

So we now have a Member of the Mt. Vernon Board of Education who has been active in supporting and raising money for a legal case against the Board. AFAIK that’s not legally problematic in and of itself–the voters can elect whoever they wish–but it raises a big red flag when that Member starts operating independently of the Board’s policy in legal matters, and Thompson has done that.

Within an hour after his first meeting as a member of the Board this week, Thompson himself initiated a private conversation with Steve Dennis, father of Zachary, in which he (Thompson) broached the idea of some sort of global settlement with Freshwater. He asked Dennis if he brought Dennis some kind of settlement proposal would Dennis entertain it. Dennis told Thompson that the family had already settled with the Board and in any case any proposed settlement should go through counsel. (Added in edit: See the elaboration below in comments.)

Now think about that. We have a brand new member of the Board of Education, which is a defendant in a legal case brought by Freshwater, a member of the Board who was–and still is, as far as one can tell–a member of a fund-raising committee for Freshwater to support his legal actions against the Board of Education, and that Board member on his own hook initiates a private conversation about a potential legal settlement with another party to two federal lawsuits involving Freshwater. I wonder where Thompson learned about the legal and fiduciary responsibilities of members of Boards of Education, and I seriously wonder who the hell he thinks he is to broach that issue on his own after just one Board meeting at which nothing concerning the legal cases was discussed.

I think the Board of Education needs to take a long and careful look at Thompson’s continuing private activities on behalf of Freshwater while he is a member of that Board. Thompson should be required by the Board President to absent himself from executive sessions concerning the legal cases and to recuse himself from voting on those legal matters, since he is continuing his activities on behalf of a man who is suing the Board in federal court. Otherwise the Board and the school district will be exposed to significant legal jeopardy by his participation.

64 Comments

He mentions Mr Freshwater and settlement in this video too.

holycow said: He mentions Mr Freshwater and settlement in this video too.

Sorry. One can’t embed video in comments. Youtube link for the video.

Yeah, that was before Thompson was elected to the Board, but his intent seems clear.

The acount I heard was that Steve Thompson left the board meeting with one or two other people and went to McDonald’s. But Steve Dennis followed Thompson to McDonald’s and initiated the conversation, in which Thompson said something to the effect that he would like to see this case come to an end.

Nope, Levi, it wasn’t at McDonald’s and Dennis did not initiate the conversation.

How long before the new school board gets sued in federal court for violating the US constitution, separation of church and state?

Christofascist fundies hate the US and its constitution. It prevents them from violating everyone else’s rights and running their lives for them.

IMO, it is inevitable, sooner or later. They’ve already made their intentions clear in Mt. Vernon; to turn the schools into a culture war battleground. What is the point of being a religious fanatic if you can’t fold, mutilate, spindle, and destroy stuff while hating and lying a lot?

But the culture war battleground idea is OK if that is what they want. They usually alienate anyone remotely normal and lose anyway. Most people pay taxes and want the schools to be schools, not death cult xian religious indoctrination facilities. Dover/Kitzmiller anyone?

If this happened in my school district, I’d be at the front of the line to sue them. No kids in school, but my tax bill every year is phenomenal and much of it goes to the schools. And I’ve been in federal court before on civil cases and we won.

Hi Richard, First of all, thanks for all of your detailed reporting on this Freshwater Fiasco. I live in Mount Vernon and my daughter is a former student of Freshwater’s. I am very interested in this case but unfortunately have not been able to attend any of the hearings. I understand that it is very difficult to recall someone who was elected but Steve Thompson certainly seems to have an agenda that runs counter to his responsibilities as a board member. Are there grounds for filing a civil suit or criminal charges against him for malfeasance or something related?

CMB said:

Hi Richard, First of all, thanks for all of your detailed reporting on this Freshwater Fiasco.

You’re welcome. Nice to know I’m being read locally.

[SNIP]

I understand that it is very difficult to recall someone who was elected but Steve Thompson certainly seems to have an agenda that runs counter to his responsibilities as a board member. Are there grounds for filing a civil suit or criminal charges against him for malfeasance or something related?

I don’t know. I do know that some legal-type rumblings are out there, but I’m not sure what, if anything, will come down the pike. As of now the conversation I reported on is a “He said, he said” deal – only two participants and I’m sure Thompson would have a different account of the encounter (see LStickle’s comment above). However I believe Steve Dennis’s account of the encounter, since he provided some peripheral details that I myself could and did verify.

RBH wrote:

“Within an hour after his first meeting as a member of the Board this week, Thompson himself initiated a private conversation with Steve Dennis, father of Zachary, in which he (Thompson) broached the idea of some sort of global settlement with Freshwater.”

Well I would be all for any settlement as long as it contained the following at a minimum:

1) Freshwater is terminated and never allowed to teach again in any public school

2) Freshwater pays all legal fees incurred

3) Freshwater issues a very public apology to the students he branded, their parents and the board of education for all of the unethical and dishonest behavior that he engaged in and his blatant disregard for common decency

That should be the very least he could do.

DS said: That should be the very least he could do.

Um, I don’t think that’s what Thompson had in mind. :)

CMB:

Are there grounds for filing a civil suit or criminal charges against him for malfeasance or something related?

IANAL, or Richard or in Mt. Vernon.

But really, Steve Thompson has to do something illegal or civilly tortuous first, before the anyone sues.

But don’t worry. These clowns have a habit of shooting themselves in the foot with a machine gun. And if you give them some rope, they cheefully wrap it around their neck.

It is a nihilism thing, I hope you don’t understand it.

There is usually a paper trail of some sort. For government and quasi-government bodies open meetings and paper trails are legal requirements. Just keep good records and watch as closely as possible.

And don’t worry. Fundies often get lawyers that are their intellectual equals, which is to say, not very good.

To see how these people would handle things without the Constitution to restrain them look no further than Uganda. The three evangelicals who went there to drum up some much needed African homophobia, would love to do likewise in your country.

No, the Freshwaters of the world have to be nailed legally. And when they are it’s wonderful to see them squirm and realise there really is higher power, it’s called the law.

They’re usually unaware of when they’re escalating a situation. This is definitely escalating.

Another local reading …

You knnow, it’s nearly comical reading through. Nearly - since the education of thousands of students (including my children) is being held in the balance.

Example: State passes full day kindergarten, but the local systems must come up with the funding. And the amount of money needed in MVCS would nearly be covered by the legal fees of this administrative hearing.

I’m saddened that the voters did not pay attention to the not so hidden agendas during the BOE election and haven’t had adequate covereage in the local media to be informed on the hearing. Even Mr Thompson seems to not be in the know as he’s offering a settlement to a party who’s already settled with the BOE.

Obviously, the election of Thompson to the board indicates where part of the My Vernon population wants it to go. I think those who voted for Thompson were fully aware of his actual agenda, and it is going to be a perfect legal mess from here out. They know darn well that Freshwater is the problem, but their fundie mind wants to win. Worse, they feel it bis mandated to keep de secularisation etc at bay, and they rather spend thousands of TAX dollars on defending that then to see they are at the wrong side. There is no ignorance at work here, there is a calculated effort to skew the problem to a certain direction.

RBH said:

Nope, Levi, it wasn’t at McDonald’s and Dennis did not initiate the conversation.

Let me elaborate on that, having rechecked. Steve Dennis pulled into a Sunoco gas station next to a McDonald’s, and Steve Thompson was in the lot of the McDonald’s. Thompson walked over to the gas station to talk with Dennis. And once again, Thompson initiated the topic of a settlement.

So was he trying to buy Mr.Dennis off? Was he offering him money to just go away?

Obviously, the election of Thompson to the board indicates where part of the My Vernon population wants it to go. I think those who voted for Thompson were fully aware of his actual agenda, and it is going to be a perfect legal mess from here out.

Actually, Kim and ERJ are probably both right. The usual tactic is to run as an ostentatious “Christian”, but to keep the details of any agenda secret, or mentioned only in coded language. Some of the voters knew exactly what they were getting, but not necessarily of the people who voted for Thompson.

I am a “civil rights extremist”, and I very strongly respect the right of people to live as their conscience dictates, as long as they respect that right in others (I do not personally practice a religion).

Having said that, the current Fox News version of Christianity basically has two contradictory aspects -

1) It’s constantly implied that it’s a license to do anything, as long as you ostentatiously “repent” later. Forgiveness of sin is part of all Christian theology, but taking this to mean that you have the privilege of violating any ethical norms any time you want and then canceling out responsibility with a magic formula is deeply degenerate, especially when this is combined with a tribalistic attitude that anything said or done by a “real American Christian” must be defended. Conveniently, “morality” for them consists of a set of arbitrary, cherry-picked, concrete “rules” with no underlying principles beyond obedience to authority (the “Golden Rule” is not one of the cherries they choose to pick).

In Thompson’s mind, he is entitled to literally do anything they want. His god only cares about a few simpleton taboos, and even if he violates those, a smirking “repentance” will set everything right.

It’s a religion for sociopaths, and the fact that this type of “Christianity” is widespread is a profound social pathology on US society.

2) Of course, even while openly adhering to the standard that “I did something wrong, but I conveniently repented, so I bear no responsibility”, as we all see them do over and over again, adherents of this cult of convenience sit in pompous judgment of others and declare themselves morally superior.

Intriguingly, a common critique of others is the ludicrous claim that those outside the cult have no “absolute morality”, or that obedience to the cult is required to prevent “anything goes” social breakdown. This makes perfect sense when one realizes that it is projection. It is their own attitude - morality consists of a few simple-minded taboos, and I am personally entitled to violate even those - that they project onto others.

Since any rational standard of decency is already implicitly denied merely by the adoption of such a religious stance, it’s a small step to deny scientific reality.

In fact, it occurs to me that denial of science may be an unconscious litmus test. You aren’t really loyal to the cause until you are willing to engage in bald-faced denial of scientific reality.

m arie said:

So was he trying to buy Mr.Dennis off? Was he offering him money to just go away?

No, he is trying to find a way for Freshwater to retain his job. There was no offer of money, but rather an inquiry about whether if Thompson offered a proposed settlement Dennis would entertain it. Thompson badly wants the affair settled on Freshwater’s terms.

RBH said:

m arie said:

So was he trying to buy Mr.Dennis off? Was he offering him money to just go away?

No, I think he is trying to find a way for Freshwater to retain his job. There was no offer of money, but rather an inquiry about whether if Thompson offered a proposed settlement Dennis would entertain it. Thompson badly wants the affair settled on Freshwater’s terms.

Thanks for the reply. Im so interested in this case.

Thanks for your continuing efforts.

RBH wrote:

“No, he is trying to find a way for Freshwater to retain his job.”

I honestly don’t see any way for that to happen now. First, if he goes back to teaching science, he will be under a spot light and other law suits are almost guaranteed to follow. There is no way this guy will ever change, especially if he thinks he can get away with this kind of behavior. Second, if the board gets nothing for all of the money spent on this, it will send a message that such behavior will not be punished. Once again, that almost guarantees more law suits against other faculty members who are no doubt ready and willing to repeat such deplorable behavior once they think there is a chance they can get away with it.

I’m reading Matthew Chapman’s book about Dover, Pennsylvania right now. My first time reading anything about Kitzmiller versus Dover.

1. The fundies knew that what they were doing was illegal.

2. They knew they would end up in court.

3. It is not clear whether they knew they would lose yet.

4. If they could do it again, the hardcore fundies would do it again.

Dover was a poor school district and the money it cost them was urgently needed elsewhere. These are the actions of disturbed adolescents. Any attention is interpreted as positive. Hey, look at me, I can destroy the school system.

Pathetic that the fundie xians will put pointless, expensive vandalism ahead of children and education.

“As you sow, so shall you reap.” If Mt. Vernon wants to walk the well worn path to federal court and another loss, way it goes. Disturbed adolescents seeking attention often end up doing time in one facility or another.

raven said: 3. It is not clear whether they knew they would lose yet.

They were told by the district’s attorney that “you’re going to be sued, and you’re going to lose” according to the NOVA special on the case.

They’re not targeting poor communities, they’re targeting deeply religious communities. The fact that suitable communities tend to be poor, rural, less educated, etc. is just an unfortunate coincidence. Can’t possibly be any causal connection there, can there?

The creationists don’t yet seem to grasp the subtle distinction between a debate and a lawsuit. In each case, they get to pick the venue, they get to control the audience, they get to declare themselves the winners. Other differences seem regarded as minor, things like not getting to pick the judge, and having an unambiguous final outcome.

Thompson’s election implies that the members of the community are more than willing to fight hopeless causes when their faith requires it. Their taxes may go up, but it keeps them out of hell.

Some fundies have the agenda of destroying the public schools. Then all the kids would have to go to their Xian schools.

I went to one attempt in the early 80s to require a ‘balanced’ view. A phalanx of bright young men came in with California tans and gorgeous suits and orchestrated lies. They got a couple of backwoods preachers to read their nonsense. Hardly any locals showed up independently, one lady in a bright pink suit speaking of ‘hopeful monsters’.

OT: Heard on the radio yesterday that Pat Robertson is now worth a $Billion.

If I may clarify the “to the not so hidden agendas during the BOE election”.

Never in any interview did Mr Thompson say anything about his involvement on the board for Freshwater’s fundraising. He made the whole campaign about a supposed $3 million deficit. When his involvement in the fund raising group was brought to light on a local online forum, that site disappeared. When questioned about his involvement directly, his answer was he hadn’t actually served on the board actively.

So for those not paying close attention, here was a man saying the school system was in tremendous debt and he was going to use his business background to solve the problem - a non-existent problem. Because his campaign had money, he could air radio ads and send slick campaign info about this “debt”, scaring people. (Never mind there was no operating levy on the ballot.)

People who’d been following the case knew what was the heart of the matter. Some knew his agenda and support it, some knew his agenda and didn’t, and some had no idea what was going on other than what his campaign was saying.

He was smart enough to keep quiet about how close of ties he had to the Freshwater side … not saying he wouldn’t be on the BOE if he had, but I find it doubtful given the wider community’s general disdain for burning children.

The fact he now sees himself brokering a deal between the BOE and the child’s family in a gas station parking lot after a settlement between the two has been reached, shows very clearly how strong the other four board members will need to be for the next four years.

RBH,

There is no law that prohibits a community member from talking with a school board member. While a board member cannot independently act on behalf of the board that doesn’t prohibit discussions with community members. Have you ever talked with a school board member?

I’m sure you, as someone who was on Paula Barone’s campaign committee, know that both Steve & Jenifer Dennis served on Barone’s committee. Considering that the Dennis family has an ongoing federal lawsuit against John Freshwater/Mount Vernon City Schools, do you also believe that Barone would have an ethical problem if she were to be in any “executive sessions concerning the legal cases”?

Do you think there is any conflict of interest for Barone due to her participation in the H.R. On Call investigation? What about her husband’s involvement with the Dennis’ website?

Also, do you believe that board members Dr. Margie Bennett, Mrs. Sharon Fair and Mrs. Jody Goetzman should recuse themselves? After all, they did vote for the 2008 resolution to consider the termination of Mr. Freshwater’s teaching contract. If that resolution wasn’t a statement of their own opinions about the Freshwater matter then nothing is.

What about the money that these three board members voted to give, through the board’s insurance, to the Dennis family and their attorneys? The payment, when it is made, will in effect help fund the family’s continued lawsuit against the teacher and the school. (In the “settlement” the board acknowledges that the school is still liable for Mr. Freshwater.)

The types of issues you attempted to raise in your post could be used to argue that ALL of the board members should recuse themselves. Is this the type of direction we really want to go?

I certainly respect your right of free speech. On my own website I have raised issues about board members and candidates involvement in the Freshwater matter—but I have not called for any of them to recuse themselves. That’s a very slippery slope.

Also, do you believe that board members Dr. Margie Bennett, Mrs. Sharon Fair and Mrs. Jody Goetzman should recuse themselves? After all, they did vote for the 2008 resolution to consider the termination of Mr. Freshwater’s teaching contract. If that resolution wasn’t a statement of their own opinions about the Freshwater matter then nothing is.

Hmmm, isn’t that their job? They are members of the school board. John Freshwater was a teacher causing huge problems.

What do you think school board members do? Run around rescuing cats in trees, trading recipes, or chopping down forests?

Depending on what was said, Steve Thompson could be guilty of witness tampering or intimidation of a witness, both criminal offenses. Since I don’t know what was said, these are just possibilities. The defendants at Dover lied under oath, perjury a criminal offense. Kent Hovind turned a civil case, tax evasion, into 58 felonies and a decade in prison. Freshwater and his xian cultists may yet manage to turn a civil case into a criminal one.

Fundie death cultists routinely and pervasively make death threats. We all get them all the time. Chances are many of the people involved in Mt. Vernon have gotten them. Death threats are felonies too.

No, the Freshwaters of the world have to be nailed legally. And when they are it’s wonderful to see them squirm and realise there really is higher power, it’s called the law.

Religious fanatics are all closed minded nihilists who really could care less what anyone else thinks.

The ones at Dover were told repeatedly by the school district lawyer and everyone else that they were going to be sued and lose. They got sued and lost. They would do it again if they could.

You just have to tell them No and that is it. If they commit crimes, you have to toss them in jail.

How well would it work to reason with a suicide bomber walking into a crowd? Wouldn’t make any difference, except you would end up dead with a few dozen other people.

The fundie fanatics in Mt. Vernon know that they will damage the school system and cost it a lot of money, if they can. They don’t care. That is their whole idea.

So.…was there a Day 32 on 22 January?

No, there was no Day 32. It was cancelled.….……AGAIN!

Hmmm.… Has it been rescheduled or is the referee just going to wait until Freshwater’s attorney gets over the vapors and is willing to come back?

I believe the next hearing date will be February 11. The hearing has been moved from the Corporate Center where it has been held for the past year and a half and will now be at the Central Office of the MTV School District.

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This page contains a single entry by Richard B. Hoppe published on January 15, 2010 2:00 PM.

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