Editorial: Districts Could Improve Transparency

Coronavirus has done more than force most South Carolinians to shelter in place. It’s also given government agencies another way to shelter themselves from complying with South Carolina’s Freedom of information Act (FOIA).

Within the same week, two local school districts did just that, blamed the pandemic for their noncompliance.

In Richland Two, more than 30 days after The Voice requested documents showing travel expenses incurred by Superintendent Dr. Baron Davis, the district has yet to provide the records. The Voice requested the records back on March 3 after a concerned citizen questioned a trip Davis planned to take to Los Angeles for a conference, a reasonable request. How public bodies spend taxpayer money is always in the public’s interest.

Instead, the district says it’s unable to produce the records, citing the current coronavirus crisis. A district spokesperson said district staff that would compile the records are working from home per the governor’s order, and are unable to produce them. These same employees, however, are undoubtedly receiving their full pay while working at home.

“Please know that we have all intentions of releasing any responsive records,” the spokesperson said. “However, due to the major disruption to normal district operations caused by the response to the pandemic, we will be delayed in producing the records.”

At face value, the district’s response seems reasonable. Traditionally, Richland Two has readily complied with The Voice’s prior public record requests. 

Unfortunately, the District is acting on the terribly misguided advice of the S.C. School Board Association, of which Richland Two is a member.

On its website, the association recommends that school districts delay responding to FOIA requests filed even before Gov. Henry McMaster issued a state of emergency on March 13. FOIA requests filed after that date should be ignored, the association believes.

“SCSBA advises that, following the state of emergency declaration, FOIA requests are certainly not essential and should not be a priority,” the website states.

The association couldn’t be more wrong. Following the law is always a priority, and it’s unbelievable the association is advising school districts to break it.

The Fairfield County School District, which has a poor history of FOIA compliance, recently held a meeting unannounced to the public. On Tuesday, April 7, board members held an electronic meeting via an app called Zoom. The intent was to test its functionality in advance of the April 21 meeting, which the district plans to stream live in compliance with social distancing.

State law requires 24 hours of notice of all meetings unless the meeting is declared an emergency. That didn’t happen. There was no notice.

Board chairman William Frick downplayed the April 7 meeting, likening it to a chance meeting.

“Board members participated in a Zoom call to make sure all could access the platform and become familiar with the operation,” Frick said via email. “No action taken, no discussion of district business. Essentially the same as when we are in the same room at a conference or if four of us ate lunch together.”

That characterization ignores a critical fact. Ironing out the kinks in a conferencing app is not only district business, it’s critical business in the public’s interest.

During the March 2020 meeting, a video of which was posted to the district’s YouTube channel, had numerous technical difficulties.

Twice during discussions about the 2020-2021 budget, distinct time gaps occur. The video literally skips from one moment in time to another, cutting off substantive deliberations mid-sentence. This begs an important question: were the deletions technical glitches, or were they deliberate?

Also during the March 2020 meeting, the last few minutes of the video are virtually inaudible. Frick did not respond to questions about the audio issues.

The Voice also experienced interruptions in audio when listening to Richland Two’s March 31 meeting. Sometimes audio volume fluctuated and other times, audio cut out altogether.

Even board members reported not being able to hear portions of the meeting due to echoes or sudden drops in volume.

In a profession that places a premium on technology in the curriculum, and given school districts’ mushrooming multi-million dollar budgets that afford them, among other things, access to the latest technology, one would think meetings could be broadcast online with acceptable technical quality and in adherence to FOIA.

We hope Richland Two and Fairfield do better at both in the future.