Keeping tabs

A Buncombe County parent says it took a lawsuit to get his hands on public records kept by Erwin High School.

Mike Summey maintains that he’d been stonewalled for months by school officials who refused his requests for records he’s entitled to see under state law.

He filed suit Feb. 14 in Buncombe County Superior Court against Erwin High School Principal Malcolm Brown, Interim Superintendent Stephen Page and the Buncombe County Board of Education. A week later, Summey had in his hands a thick stack of school documents.

“From November until I filed suit, I never heard a word — not a single response to anything,” Summey charges, adding that he finds it “very interesting” that he received the documents only after he took the matter to court.

But Summey says he won’t drop the suit until the other side pays his attorney’s fees.

Brown declined to comment on the lawsuit, referring questions to the school board’s attorney. The principal also had no response to questions raised by Summey about how Erwin High School is being run.

“I would not comment on anything he has to say,” said Brown last week when contacted by phone.

Page likewise declined to comment while the lawsuit is pending.

Summey had asked to see the following: the Erwin High School Improvement Plan; Erwin High’s current budget; copies of invoices from Harris Sporting Goods; the number of Erwin sports jackets bought with public funds, as well as an explanation of who received the jackets and why; an accounting of the profits from the December Pepsi Holiday Basketball Tournament; and a detailed printout of the Erwin Athletic Account for Oct. 1 through Dec. 31, 1999.

(At press time, Summey hadn’t had a chance to read through the documents he’d received.)

Summey wanted some of the documents, he says, to gauge how well the school’s money is being spent.

“I want to find out how our school is running. And if it’s running perfect and fine, I’ll be the first to say so,” he explains. “But if there’s problems, we, as a community, need to identify them and move toward fixing them.”

Summey’s questions about the jackets pertain to $3,693 paid to Harris Sporting Goods during the last school year and charged to the school’s football account. Football players didn’t receive the jackets, Summey says in a letter to Brown, dated Nov. 26.

Summey’s name may be familiar to many people in the county. Now semiretired, he owned Summey Outdoor Advertising before selling the billboard business nearly three years ago. He has two sons at Erwin High: Matt and Jason; the latter has gained national (and even international) attention as the founder of Erwin’s “Be Cool … Stay In School” program. And his wife, Linda, sits on the school board. (Summey says he isn’t upset with his wife, explaining that the lawsuit had to include the school board as a defendant.)

“There’s no personal gain for me in this whatsoever,” Summey asserts. “There’s not one thing that school can do for me, but there’s a lot I can do for it.”

This isn’t the first time Summey has gone head-to-head with the school system.

During the past couple of years, Summey — a member of the Erwin Booster Club — sent a series of letters to Brown, Page and former Superintendent Dr. Bob Bowers, questioning school administrators about how things are being run at Erwin High, and about officials’ conduct in regard to the club and Summey’s family.

Summey says he began raising questions several years ago, when he and Jason weren’t permitted to meet with faculty members at Erwin High about Jason’s Dropout Patrol.

Later, Summey took issue with requests made by school administrators to obtain Booster Club funds. Money raised by the not-for-profit Booster Club is earmarked for enhancing Erwin’s athletic programs (including cheerleading), according to the club’s bylaws.

However, in 1996 and 1997, administrators made several requests for Booster Club money, saying the money would be spent on nonathletic-related items, according to Booster Club meeting minutes. For example, Brown asked for (and received) $500 from the club to help pay for a back-to-school luncheon for teachers in August 1996, according to club minutes.

That particular problem apparently hasn’t resurfaced. However, even after the Booster Club instituted a budget, there has continued to be disagreement about how the club’s money was to be spent, Summey says.

The amount of money involved isn’t insignificant. The Booster Club budget prepared for the 1999-2000 school year set aside $36,700 to be spent in various categories, Summey wrote in a letter to Brown last September.

Summey also is unhappy that some of the Booster Club’s customary avenues of fundraising have been cut off. The Booster Club, which traditionally had a role in the Pepsi Holiday Basketball Tournament, was excluded from running the concession stand in December, Summey says. In the lawsuit, he asked to see an accounting of the profits from that event, which is usually is one of the club’s major fundraisers.

Erwin High officials are now planning a golf tournament, to be held just a week before the Booster Club’s June fundraising golf tournament, notes Summey — adding that, in the past, there haven’t been two golf tournaments scheduled one after the other.

As far as the lawsuit is concerned, Summey says it was “stupid” that he had to take school officials to court to get the records.

“This should never have happened,” he asserts. “There’s absolutely no reason for this ever to have gone this far.”

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