HENRYETTA — An attorney representing suspended Ryal Public Schools Superintendent Scot Trower said the district's school board violated state open meeting laws when it took action against his client Monday night.
Trower was suspended with pay following the meeting as school board members continue to investigate unflattering comments the administrator made about the Ryal community during an interview with The Oklahoman last month for a story about how the district has been academically successful despite various hurdles.
Richard O'Carroll, an attorney representing Trower, said the school board broke the law Monday on at least two occasions. He also said Trower does not deserve to be suspended for making candid but truthful remarks.
“For 48 hours, they have to post the agenda so the community is advised as to what action is going to be taken,” he said of Monday's meeting. “That didn't happen here.”
An attorney for the school district said there was no apparent violation of open meeting laws.
The agenda, which is available on the school district's website, does not mention Trower by name or make reference to any kind of action regarding his employment.
Trower's suspension was discussed during “New Business,” one of the last items listed on the school board's agenda for Monday night's meeting, O'Carroll said.
“I've been doing this for 20 years,” he said. “That is unusual.”
The school board further violated the state's open meeting laws by allowing a “non-school board member,” a man named Wallace Gambler, to participate in an executive session where it was ultimately decided that Trower would be suspended with pay, O'Carroll said.
He described Gambler as a well-respected member of the local Indian community — “an elder.”
The Ryal School Board has three members, but Monday night one seat was officially vacant due to a recent resignation, O'Carroll said.
“(Gambler) was not a board member when he was deliberating,” he said. “There had been no votes, no election, no assignment, no appointment. He was never sworn in.”
Andy Fugitt, an attorney representing the Ryal School Board, said the allegations made by Trower's attorney are apparently unfounded.
“If my understanding is correct, this was a regular meeting and the Open Meeting Act does allow boards to take up new business at a regular meeting,” Fugitt said. “It's my understanding this was new business.”
As for Gambler's participation in the executive session, Fugitt said he didn't “know anything about that.”
Even if Gambler was there, he said it likely wouldn't make the meeting illegal.
“The board, under the Open Meeting Act, can let whoever it wants to into the executive session,” he said, “to hear information from them, to talk to them ... but then the board has to come out and vote.”
“I've never heard of it being a violation for the board to let someone in to talk to them.”
Comments caused stir
After Monday night's school board meeting, officials said Trower was suspended because of comments he made to The Oklahoman in late February.
In the article, the superintendent described the district's students as children of poverty — some of them fourth-generation.
Trower commented that many of the students don't eat unless they are at school, and many of their families don't value education.
“Their families don't see a need for an education past the eighth grade,” Trower said last month. “How do you get past that?”
Trower also made comments about high levels of drug addiction, alcoholism and other criminal behavior while driving near an area called Ryal Bottoms, where many of the district's students live.
Robert Bennett, the school board president, said many of the district's parents were angered by Trower's comments.
“The story portrayed the Ryal community in a very negative light,” Bennett said following Monday night's meeting. “The vast majority of our kids live in houses with electricity. They do have shoes. Their parents do work.
“Lots of our students go on to be schoolteachers, doctors, lawyers and professionals.”
When reached by phone Wednesday, Trower said he could not comment on the suspension or the things he said to The Oklahoman last month.
O'Carroll said his client did nothing wrong and doesn't deserve to be suspended, or in any kind of trouble.
“The community is exactly the way it is described in the article,” the attorney said. “The facts are accurate.
“There's a tremendous amount of poverty ... and the majority of the community could aptly be described as poor.”
Ryal Public Schools, which serves roughly 70 students just south of Henryetta, is among the poorest in the state, data provided by the state Education Department show.
An analysis by The Oklahoman shows a correlation between poverty and the state A-F school evaluation system.
Poorer schools tend to have lower letter grades. Schools in wealthier areas tend to score higher.
Ryal, which would be expected to score lower, earned a B when the latest grades were announced, the same as some schools in Edmond and Norman.
Contributing: Staff Writers Matt Dinger and Carrie Coppernoll