Monday, May 20, 2024

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School board postpones vote on new public records fees


Alamance-Burlington school board members have delayed voting to adopt a revised policy under which ABSS would impose new charges for four or more hours of office work to comply with “extensive” public records requests.

ABSS public information officer Les Atkins presented the proposed policy to the board two weeks ago, adding that his office had received more than four dozen public records requests from news media and researchers since the beginning of this year.

The new charges would apply to public records requests that require extensive use of information technology resources and/or employees’ time, according to the proposed policy revision.

During an earlier discussion, school board member Dan Ingle had asked the staff to compile information about what type of fees that other nearby or similarly-sized school systems are charging for public records requests. He reiterated his request when that information wasn’t furnished for the board’s latest discussion.

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School board member Chuck Marsh said last week, “We have two gentlemen spending about three hours a day on public information; they could be doing other things. We are talking about the emails, but you have to redact things that are related to kids…That’s a lot of work, and that’s not what their job [entails].”]

No fees can be charged for the redaction of privileged or confidential information from documents otherwise considered public records, under North Carolina’s Public Records Law.

“I would imagine quite a lot of correspondence between board member would contain confidential student information, but the law is quite clear,” said school board attorney Adam Mitchell, who is with the Tharrington Smith law firm in Raleigh and participated in last week’s board meeting via phone. “You can’t charge costs [for redactions], and the school system would not be able to pass on that costs as part of the public records request.”

“When we deal with public information, we need to be careful,” Ingle warned. “If they’re just trying to do the business of the people, we need to adhere to that.”

School board member Dan Ingle asks a question; board member Donna Westbrooks is to his right.

ABSS deputy superintendent Lowell Rogers asked, “You would like what other districts are charging in our area, and other districts our size?”

Yes, Ingle confirmed.

Atkins previously told the board that the proposed policy revision had been prompted by numerous public records requests filed in response to the “senior pranks” in late May that resulted in more than 80 seniors not being able to attend their graduation ceremonies and the ongoing mold crisis that prompted a two-week delay in the start of the current school year.

Meanwhile, school board members heard a scathing assessment of the proposed new fees from one speaker last Monday night, during the public comments period of their latest meeting.

“This board wants to nickel and dime and charge taxpayers $25 an hour for public records,” Ed Priola of Mebane said, referring to an earlier suggestion by Marsh to charge $25 an hour for clerical assistance and up to $75 an hour for any supervision that may be required to fulfill public records requests.

“[These are] records that taxpayers have an absolute right to see without artificial regulatory obstructions, fake barriers, and phony fees,” Priola added. “To my thinking, the only thing transparent about this board is its efforts to manipulate and conceal information from the public, time and time again.”

School board members will likely resume their discussion about the proposed policy revision at their next work session in two weeks.

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