It was either a series of misunderstandings or somebody is planning to ambush school board candidate Gracie Porter. Last week, a copy of Porter’s school district file—she worked for Metro schools for 34 years before retiring two years ago—was requested through Metro Clerk Marilyn Swing’s office.
There’s nothing unusual or unlawful about reading the personnel files of government workers. Any Tennessee resident is permitted to read the employment history of public employees, a key part of the state’s open records law.
But asking Swing for Porter’s file raised concerns for several reasons. Porter, who turns 61 this week, was immersed in a heated special election last month in which the Metro Council decided Porter’s opponent would be a better fit than she for the interim school board seat, even though Porter was a teacher, librarian and principal at 11 different schools during her tenure in Metro schools (Political Notes, May 25).
The council’s vote confirmed the widespread belief that council members aren’t much more than a passel of morons, though it was thought that the special election was nothing personal. After all, Porter’s opponent, bookkeeper Kay Brooks, will hold the seat for only two months. Then came word that Swing’s office had asked school officials for Porter’s file, ostensibly for a council member to read. But which council member? And why?
The first council member rumored to be involved was Michael Craddock, who nominated Kay Brooks and lined up votes for her in a highly controversial council election.
Craddock, however, denies it. “I wouldn’t even know how to do it,” says Craddock, a real estate agent. “It wasn’t me.” But he can’t resist a parting shot at Porter. “Does she have something in the file that she doesn’t want seen?” he asks, an “ah-hah” tone in his voice.
Porter’s employee file is mostly exemplary, with a single critical entry the year before she retired but otherwise fawning comments.
In a 2003 year-end review, Superintendent Pedro Garcia wrote, among positive comments, that Porter needed to gain more knowledge of fiscal management, should file reports in a timely manner and that “some parents indicated the principal shows an attitude of always being right and doesn’t appear to hear them. This perception needs [her] attention.”
The latter comment is ironic, given Garcia’s reputation for being stubborn, egotistical and inattentive. In any event, if Garcia’s comments are all Porter’s opponents have, they don’t have much. In June 2000, Porter’s file shows she “works well with parents and teachers”—contradicting Garcia’s later comments.
So who’s interested in Porter’s work history? According to the Metro Department of Law, the council member is Jason Hart, a construction contractor who assumed the seat from his father, attorney Lawrence Hart, who happens to be running against Porter and Brooks in the Aug. 3 election for the District 5 school board seat.
Jason Hart first insists he has no interest in viewing Porter’s file, though he says it would be a “good idea” if somebody did. Then comes confirmation from city attorneys that they’re waiting for Jason Hart to look at the file, which they’d received through Swing’s office.
After a second call to Jason Hart, he says he didn’t request it but knows who did: a constituent who had a dispute with Porter. “He called me two or three weeks ago because he wanted to find out what her deal was,” says Hart, whose son Bradley attends Metro schools. “I told him to call the clerk’s office and pull the record.” Hart muses that he might decide to view Porter’s file as a precursor to voting. “I should take a look at it,” he says, “just to be on the safe side.”
Even so, Hart insists there’s nothing for Porter to worry about. “I’m not trying to start any crap.”
Good thing. If oppo-researchers start poking around the career of his father, the school board candidate, they’ll find an arrest for shoplifting and a reputation as a spendthrift during his council tenure.
Unemployment for all
He’s been called a dim bulb, so excuse the few political observers who thought former council member Michael Kerstetter, who resigned April 4 to pursue a school board seat, wasn’t in his right mind when he appeared to inquire about unemployment compensation from his part-time legislative position.
“If elected officials cannot draw unemployment per their elected office wages, why does Metro pay into the unemployment system?” Kerstetter asked in a May 23 email to the entire council. “What is the amount Metro pays towards the system per its elected officials?”
There are two key points to consider here: Kerstetter, a former radio DJ and producer, resigned from the council. Employees who quit their jobs receive no unemployment compensation. If they did, everybody would quit their jobs to stay home and watch Oprah. Second, the council is a $15,000-per-year part-time job. Part-timers typically receive no unemployment.
So what gives? Kerstetter says despite how his email reads, he wasn’t trying to collect unemployment. He currently works full-time as an interviewer with the state’s unemployment office, so he knows the basic rules, like he can’t collect from a job he quit.
His email was intended, he says, to ensure that Metro doesn’t deduct money from employee checks—potentially millions of dollars that might add to Metro’s general fund. It’s a money-saving issue, he says. “What is the amount Metro pays into the system per elected official?” Kerstetter muses.
The answer to that question is zero, finance director David Manning says. “To the best of my knowledge,” he writes in an email, “we do not deduct money from any employee’s pay, including council members, for unemployment insurance.”