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Attempts to unseal settlement agreements reached in court cases against the two local public school systems have been denied by a Taylor Circuit Court judge.
However, the Central Kentucky News-Journal is requesting a review of the cases by the Kentucky Court of Appeals.
Lawsuits filed by former Campbellsville High School teacher Katherine J. Moss against both local school boards were settled and dismissed earlier this year.
However, the settlement agreements are being kept secret, and the News-Journal has made several attempts to bring those agreements out in the open.
Moss sued the Campbellsville Independent Board of Education in February 2003, claiming that then high school principal Greg Chick sexually harassed her on multiple occasions.
Chick and the Campbellsville School Board denied the charges.
The following year, Moss sued the Taylor County Board of Education, claiming she was not hired when she was more qualified than another person who was.
The Taylor County School Board also denied the charge.
Because public school districts are funded by tax dollars, the Central Kentucky News-Journal believes the public is entitled to know how the suits were settled.
Therefore, just after the case was dismissed as settled in February, News-Journal Editor Rebecca Cassell made an open records request to Taylor County Schools for details of its settlement agreement with Moss. That request was denied in a letter to Cassell from Superintendent Gary Seaborne in March, citing a Taylor Circuit Court order sealing the terms.
In April, when Moss' case against the Campbellsville Board was dismissed, Cassell made an open records request to Campbellsville Independent Schools for details of its settlement agreement with Moss. That request was denied by Superintendent Diane Woods-Ayers in a letter received in April, citing a court order similar to Seaborne's.
Court orders entered in both cases state that the terms of the settlements are to remain sealed. However, no sealed documents are included in court records.
Following the denials, the Central Kentucky News-Journal filed requests for an attorney general's opinion to Kentucky Attorney General Greg Stumbo.
Opinions of the attorney general do not have the force of law, but they are persuasive and public officials are expected to follow them. They may also be cited in all Kentucky courts.
In her requests, Cassell wrote, "Public access to the settlement agreement allows the public to determine whether the settlement to which the school boards agreed ensures that the public's interests were protected and that public funds were appropriately spent."
In her letter, Cassell stated that settlement agreements involving public agencies have historically been open to inspection by the public in Kentucky.
In May, Stumbo responded to the News-Journal's requests.
Stumbo's opinion states that even though the Campbellsville Independent School District "improperly denied" Cassell's request, the terms of the settlement agreements were sealed by a Taylor Circuit Court judge and the issue must be resolved in that Court.
After receiving Stumbo's opinions in August, the News-Journal asked Taylor Circuit Court Judge Doughlas M. George to review the issue and unseal the terms of the settlements.
Moss' attorney, Stephen Emery of Crestwood, Ky., responded to the News-Journal's request and stated that Moss would not have agreed to the settlement without a promise of confidentiality.
Emery states that the News-Journal has no right to intervene in the matter, and the privacy rights of those involved in Moss' suit outweigh the public's right to know what happened in her cases.
"It appears that the only piece of information that the newspaper seeks is a dollar amount for the settlements," the answer states. "It is not entitled to this piece of information. The law should not deal in trifles - and this is a trifling bit of information."
In late October, George issued an order denying the News-Journal's request to unseal the settlements.
George's order states that both school boards assert that the settlements should remain sealed because both lawsuits involved claims against public entities and private individuals and no public funds were spent to settle Moss' claims.
George also states that the information sought by the News-Journal is "stale news" and the parties involved have moved on in accordance with the agreement.
"Allowing the newspaper to intervene at this point would do nothing more than exploit the terms of the settlement agreement, which contains information of a private and personal nature."
Cases are not re-tried at the Court of Appeals level. Only the record of the original court decision is reviewed, with attorneys presenting the legal issues to the court for a decision.
Fourteen judges, two elected from seven appellate court districts, serve on the Court of Appeals. The judges are divided into panels of three to review and decide cases, with the majority determining the decision.
"The public has a right to know where public funds are being spent," said News-Journal Publisher Richard RoBards.
"We are challenging the court's decision and feel it is important for an appellate court to look at it."
- Staff Writer Calen McKinney can be reached at 465-8111 Ext. 235 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.