District charges $338 for FOIA records

WINNSBORO – It will cost $338 before the Fairfield County School District will disclose expense records from the superintendent’s discretionary budget, which one board member characterized as a sort of ‘slush fund.’

It’s from the superintendent’s account, also referred to as the superintendent’s contingency fund, that the district quietly paid for costly, out-of-state trips for the Griffin Bow Tie Club.

Exactly how much is spent on the student groups and other things remains a mystery.

In a letter to The Voice, Superintendent Dr. J.R. Green said the newspaper would have to pay an $84.50 deposit before the district would even process the request.

“This District will provide you with copies of the requested information upon receipt of an appropriate deposit, as authorized by the FOIA,” Green wrote on Oct. 21. “Upon receipt of the deposit, the District will undertake the work necessary to respond to your request.”

Green’s response came 10 business days after The Voice’s request, the maximum allowed under state law.

The Voice contested the $338 charge in a reply sent Oct. 27, noting that state law allows public bodies to waive or reduce fees when “the agency determines that waiver or reduction of the fee is in the public interest because furnishing the information can be considered as primarily benefitting the general public.”

The district took another 10 business days to respond to The Voice’s reply, saying it would not reconsider the $338 fee.

Jay Bender, an attorney with the S.C. Press Association, of which The Voice is a member, said when public bodies slow walk public record requests, they’re sending a message that they want taxpayers kept in the dark about government activity.

“It says this district does not want constituents to know how it’s spending its money,” Bender said. “They’re going to drag it out as long as they possibly can and set the charges as high as they possibly can to dissuade people from finding out actually what goes on.”

Bender also challenged the legitimacy of the district’s charges. He said it shouldn’t take much effort or paperwork to provide credit card statements, cancelled checks or other documents specifying how the district spends taxpayer money.

State law allows the public to review records at no cost. The intent is to help information seekers mitigate costs by identifying specific records to reproduce.

Green has not responded to multiple requests from The Voice to inspect documents showing how money is spent from the superintendent’s discretionary account.

“The law is clear. You’re entitled to see information taken in any account or voucher, so unless they have some obscure accounting system, you should be able to look at checks written on that fund,” Bender said. “And it should be itemized with respect to that fund. It shouldn’t [cost] anything to look at it.”

The district’s obfuscation of financial records isn’t limited to the general public or press.

Board Trustee Paula Hartman said she’s tried unsuccessfully for years to shed light on how the superintendent spends discretionary funds. She noted concerns over transparency in Dr. Green’s annual evaluation earlier this month.

In June 2017, she and former trustee Annie McDaniel quizzed Dr. Green and other district officials about how superintendent discretionary funds are spent, but never received a detailed answer.

“Quite a few years back I asked for that,” Hartman said. “He (Green) had told us he would let us know what was spent out of there each year and he hasn’t done that.”

Green eventually acknowledged the fund does pay for trips for student clubs, such as the Griffin Bow Tie Club and the Elite Ladies of Fairfield County School District.

The Voice requested more detailed expenses from the superintendent’s discretionary fund because it’s not itemized within the school district budget.

In 2018-2019, the school board budgeted $404,874 for the superintendent’s office, but the budget doesn’t break out the discretionary fund. The 2017-2018 budget also doesn’t itemize the fund.

Previous budgets between 2012-2013 and 2016-2017 were not available because links to those documents on the district’s website are broken. A district office representative couldn’t be reached before press time because the school district is on winter break until Jan. 3, according to the district’s website.

Hartman asked about the account again this past June, specifically asking how much money was spent to send members of the Griffin Bow Tie Club to Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. Green couldn’t say, and six months later, an accounting of the trip has not been provided.

Hartman also asked Green why the multi-day trip had not come before the board for approval as required by board policy.

“I’d have to go back and check. It very well could’ve been an oversight,” Green said at the June meeting.

“At a later meeting he confirmed that the trip had not been presented to the board for approval,” Hartman told The Voice. “We actually were not even informed that he was taking them to Kentucky, which is against board policy.”

It’s also unclear how the Churchill Downs trip aligned with learning standards mapped out by the S.C. Department of Education. That information was not available since Green did not request board approval for the trip.