Hiding from a school board member

SCPA Attorney Jay Bender
By SCPA Attorney Jay Bender

A member of the Board of Trustees of Lexington School District 1 has had her requests for access to school district financial records denied by the school superintendent.

The member has asked to see how much money the district has paid for lawyers.  The superintendent says he won’t allow access to the records unless the entire school board approves the request, or the board member submits a written request under the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The superintendent seems to suggest that if the request is made under the FOIA he will take all the time the law allows, and perhaps then some, before making the records available.

There are several things wrong with this scenario:

  1. School districts are under the management of school boards,
  2. information in or taken from any account, voucher, or contract dealing with the expenditure of public funds is by law “public information,” and
  3. stalling by the superintendent or a denial of the remaining board members is likely to be in violation of the law.

What is the superintendent hiding from the school board member?

All school superintendents have a shelf life, and far too many of them think they can extend that shelf life only by keeping information from the public—particularly information that might not be received favorably.

And, some superintendents have acted as if the board works for them rather than the other way around.  I attended a school board meeting in the Pee Dee at the request of the board chair to talk about compliance with the Freedom of Information Act.  The superintendent was sitting in the middle of the head table with board members on either side.  The superintendent was in a tall, leather wingback chair and the board members were in school cafeteria plastic chairs.

My advice to the board chair was to get the superintendent out of that chair and away from the head table.  Make it clear that the board runs the school district.

If an employee of the school district can decide what information an elected official is allowed to see, how can that elected official perform the functions of an office created by state law?  The board member should persist in her request, and the other board members should align with her.

Jay Bender is a retired University of South Carolina professor and media lawyer who represents the S.C. Press Association and its newspapers.

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