Attorneys: Public has right to know details of Bryan superintendent agreement

By Elizabeth Kamenicky
The Eagle
Originally published Oct. 9, 2016

Two attorneys serving on the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas board said Bryan school trustees are wrong to cite a confidentiality agreement with former Superintendent Tommy Wallis as their reason for not telling the public why the top administrator suddenly resigned.

In the days following the release of a 16-page exit agreement between the board and Wallis, trustees remained quiet about Wallis’ abrupt departure after five years of positive performance reviews, including one given several months ago. Wallis, who resigned from his position Sept. 30, received a check last week for $83,049 in exchange for quitting. The sum is what his salary would have been had he stayed on the job through the remainder of the year. The agreement — signed by Wallis and board president Douglas Wunneburger — included a reference letter from the board, but it did not provide any insight on the reason behind his exit.

Another unanswered question in the agreement relates to why all parties involved are forbidden to discuss matters relating to the former superintendent’s employment and resignation.

“They are elected officials — you can’t tell them what they can and cannot say, because their obligation is directed to the public,” said Houston attorney Joe Larsen, one of 30 members with the nonprofit open government association.

Trustees, along with four top administrators — Timothy Rocka, who was deputy superintendent until named last week as the interim superintendent; Amy Drozd, assistant superintendent of business services; Barbara Ybarra, associate superintendent of teaching and learning; and Brandon Webb, executive director of communications and public affairs — also are barred from discussing “all facts and allegations” associated with Wallis’ employment and resignation.

Those four are not supposed to discuss the contents of the agreement, though none of them signed the document. The agreement was made public after The Eagle and other local media filed open records requests with the district, citing a law that says the information should not be kept secret.

In the document, the board and Wallis agreed to comply with the Texas Public Information Act, and acknowledged that the agreement, Wallis’ employment and resignation could be disclosed following a valid open records request.

If the district chose to withhold the information, state law would have given it 10 business days to request a decision from the attorney general, listing its legal reasoning for not making it available to the public.

Thomas Gregor, a Houston attorney who serves on the FOIFT board, said Bryan trustees can’t “hide behind” the confidentiality agreement with respect to the concealed material.

“It’s a tricky issue,” he said after reading a copy of the agreement supplied by The Eagle. “It appears that they are trying to craft a way to agree not to say anything about this, but at the same time comply with the Public Information Act. The school board can’t really render into a confidentiality agreement that would subvert the Public Information Act.”

Wallis, who had been on paid personal leave from the district for nearly two weeks before his resignation, has not returned repeated calls or emails from The Eagle during or after his absence.

Most of the trustees have declined to comment on the situation since Sept. 22, when the former administrator requested leave for an indefinite period, referring all inquiries to Wunneburger.

However, given that the board is dispersing funds to an employee who resigned and no longer is working for the school district, Gregor said trustees should all bear the responsibility of informing local taxpayers about what has unfolded. Declining to elaborate on the issues at hand, Wunneburger said the method is standard for this type of separation agreement.

“We would prefer to be as open as possible, I don’t think there’s any question about that,” he said. “There are certain things that have to do with personnel and employee privacy and the protection of, perhaps, other employees. Those things need to be evaluated by the [attorney general] before we can release them.”

The board president would not discuss why the district’s top administrators — Wallis’ executive committee — were ordered in the confidentiality agreement to not discuss the job performance of their former boss or the circumstances surrounding his departure.

The district has not released information requested by The Eagle that is considered by the Texas Public Information Act to be open record, including performance evaluations done by trustees that led to pay hikes each year he was with the district.

The Eagle has filed several open records requests with the school district to view various aspects of Wallis’ employment, as well as documents pertaining to his resignation. The agreement states that any open records request containing Wallis’ “confidential information” must be declined by the district and sent to the attorney general for a ruling.

Wallis and his attorney must also be notified if the district receives such requests, according to the document.

Stipulating what can and cannot be released by the district in addition to providing limited details leading up to Wallis’ resignation, Gregor said, is an indication of something going on “behind-the-scenes.”

“If there is any misconduct or incapacities in performing his job in the future, there is a huge problem if they’re sending a glowing recommendation to somebody else to hire him,” he said.

Over the weekend, Tommy Wallis shared a few sentences on Facebook about his decision to step down.

“We had over 5 great years in BISD and don’t regret a single day,” the post reads. “There are so many wonderful children, teachers and staff that do so much for the children of BISD-thank you for your unwavering love and support for the students. Our successes speak volumes of your hard work.”

“Our family is strong and we get stronger each day because we have grounded ourselves in God and we look forward to our next adventure that He has planned for us,” the post continues.