Tuesday, March 5, 2024

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School board OKs new fees for ‘extensive’ public records requests

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Alamance –Burlington school board members voted 5-1 at their latest meeting to approve a policy that enables the school system to charge fees for any public records requests requiring extensive clerical work or supervision to fulfill.

School board member Dan Ingle cast the lone vote against the revised policy that allows ABSS to charge fees for “extensive” public records requests.

School board chairman Sandy Ellington-Graves; vice chairman Ryan Bowden; and board members Chuck Marsh, Charles Parker, and Donna Westbrooks voted to approve the new fees for any public records requests requiring more than four hours of staff time to fulfill.

The proposal to begin charging fees for certain public records requests was unveiled in early October, after the ABSS public information officer told the board his office had received 52 public records requests related to the discovery of mold in 31 facilities that prompted a two-week delay in the start of the school year, as well as the “senior pranks” in late May that prompted the school system’s administrators to ban more than 80 seniors from attending their graduation ceremonies in June.

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Ingle signaled to his fellow board members during their latest discussion about the policy two weeks ago that he intended to vote against the new fees.  “I’m kind of partial to Sunshine laws,” he said, referring to the state’s Public Records Law.

The new fees appear in a subsection, titled “Fees for Copies of Public Records,” in an existing ABSS policy governing the retention and release of information that is considered public record under state law.

The revised policy allows ABSS to levy a “special service charge” based on actual costs for extensive use of information technology resources and “actual labor costs” for staff involved in compiling the records.

The new fees, however, do not apply to any labor costs associated with redacting (i.e., blacking out) any information that is exempt from disclosure, as outlined by the state’s Public Records Law.

ABSS deputy superintendent Lowell Rogers recalled for school board members during their work session two weeks ago that “there was some discussion about a fee schedule,” and he had “shared that information” about what other school systems charge for certain public records requests.

“They were very generic,” Ingle responded.  “There’s not a lot out there; they were very generic; they wouldn’t give you an exact number.”

No specific ranges for public records fees were presented, discussed, or considered prior to the board’s 5-1 vote to adopt the revised public records policy.

“I do like having some flexibility with the fee schedule,” said the school board’s attorney, Adam Mitchell of the Tharrington-Smith law firm in Raleigh, who participated in the meeting by phone.  ABSS will provide an estimated charge to individuals and media outlets that file public records requests that the school system’s administrators believe will require more than four hours of clerical or supervisory time.

Rogers added, “Staff would try to work to narrow the request” before developing an estimated cost to furnish documents in response to any extensive public records requests.

Handful of state’s 115 public school systems charge fees for public records requests

In a subsequent interview with The Alamance News this week, Ingle relayed what ABSS officials ultimately learned after he pressed for a comparison to fees for public records requests charged by other N.C. public school systems.

Ingle said Rogers’ research had revealed that between four and six of the state’s 115 public school systems charge such fees.  “They don’t have a set rate,” Ingle said in the interview Monday, adding that such fees are calculated depending on the amount of work needed to respond to public records requests.

“I don’t want to see us raising rates on the newspapers, or any of the media – they’re having a hard enough time surviving,” Ingle said Monday in elaborating for why he voted against the new fees for public records requests.

The Alamance News had filed a public records request with ABSS on September 11, seeking to examine all correspondence related to the mold reported in 31 facilities – to include text messages, emails, or internal staff memos – since June 10, 2023 sent to and from school board members, superintendent Dr. Dain Butler, several of his “cabinet members” (i.e., deputy superintendents and departmental directors), several employees in the ABSS facilities department, and one outside contractor.

ABSS public information officer Les Atkins had said in a September 20 letter to The Alamance News that the newspaper’s initial public records request, on September 11, had yielded more than 150,000 emails, which he estimated would require 416 hours of staff time to review.

This newspaper also filed a subsequent public records request, seeking to review all correspondence between school board members and superintendent Dr. Dain Butler, from September 11 through October 20, the date on which the request was filed with ABSS.

Not all of those records appear to have been furnished as of press time Wednesday night.

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