McMinn County school board may have violated Tennessee law on records request

Stacks of paper ready to be filed.

The McMinn County Board of Education on Wednesday still had not provided a copy of a complaint or other documentation explaining what led to a discussion Jan. 10 and unanimous vote on the removal of Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer-prize winning graphic novel "Maus: A Survivor's Tale" from the eighth-grade curriculum.

The Times Free Press first asked for the documents Jan. 28 but has received no response from the school system eight business days later, which could be viewed as a violation of the Tennessee Open Records Act, according to Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.

"State law requires that a custodian fulfill a public records request promptly, but if the records cannot be compiled promptly, to respond to a request within seven business days and let the requester know when the government entity can reasonably produce the records," Fisher said Wednesday in an email. "But they can't ignore the request. They must respond within seven business days."

Failure to respond can be seen legally as a denial of the request, and a person who is denied a public record can sue and potentially be awarded attorney's fees, Fisher said.

Attempts Wednesday to reach McMinn County Director of Schools Lee Parkison by phone and email were unsuccessful.

"The Tennessee Public Records Act does not contain express civil or criminal penalties based upon a governmental entity failing to timely provide access to public records," Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury Open Records Counsel Lee Pope said Wednesday in an email.

Pope echoed Fisher in adding that people requesting records can go to court and attorneys fees and costs may be assessed against a governmental entity if the court finds the government "willfully denied access to requested public records."

(READ MORE: Hamilton County Schools book review committee struggles to agree on group's mission, scope)

The records issue revolves around the Jan. 10 vote by the school board to remove "Maus" from the eighth-grade curriculum, a move that stirred backlash from around the nation.

Spiegelman's book tells the story of the Holocaust, with Nazis as cats and Jews as mice. A human character, the author's mother, is shown as a naked corpse in one drawing after committing suicide in a bathtub. "Maus" is about Spiegelman's father, who survived the Holocaust.

The book depicts events during the Holocaust, the mass murder of 6 million European Jews and other groups by the Nazi Germans before and during World War II. Much of the violence - and many of the curse words - shown in the book are attributed to the perpetrators of genocide.

The removal of the book drew criticism, including from Spiegelman, and led to a church holding a book-club style discussion in the community. The criticism also led to a statement from the board.

"The McMinn County Board of Education voted to remove the graphic novel 'Maus' from McMinn County Schools because of its unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and suicide," a statement from the board issued Jan. 27 said. "Taken as a whole, the board felt this work was simply too adult-oriented for use in our schools.

(READ MORE: Committee to address concerns about reading materials in Hamilton County schools)

"We do not diminish the value of 'Maus' as an impactful and meaningful piece of literature, nor do we dispute the importance of teaching our children the historical and moral lessons and realities of the Holocaust. To the contrary, we have asked our administrators to find other works that accomplish the same educational goals in a more age-appropriate fashion," the statement continued. "The atrocities of the Holocaust were shameful beyond description, and we all have an obligation to ensure that younger generations learn of its horrors to ensure that such an event is never repeated."

Tuesday, a local group called "McMinn County Neighbors" issued a statement calling for board members to rescind the vote to remove "Maus" from the curriculum and accused board members of violating their own rules. Group spokesperson Kerry Hayes declined Wednesday when contacted by phone to weigh in on the lack of response to the records request.

The group plans a demonstration at 4:30 p.m. Thursday in front of the McMinn County Center for Educational Excellence at 3 S. Hill St. in Athens prior to the school board's meeting, which will follow at 5:30.

Contact Ben Benton at or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.