School district to be more open about its disclosure policies

November 13, 2007 

  • The attorney general's office said a school district could keep some information in a legal settlement secret so long as it is covered in a section of exemptions within the S.C. Freedom of Information Act. Those include: • Trade secrets • Information of a personal nature that, if released, would be an unreasonable invasion of personal privacy -- a frequently abused exemption, according to the attorney general's office • Documents that are part of proposed contractual arrangements or proposed property sales • Documents that, if released, would violate attorney-client privilege

The Beaufort County School District will follow state open records laws when dealing with lawsuit settlements in the future, including making it clear to its insurers that the school board favors full disclosure, board officials said Monday.

When negotiating out-of-court settlements, the district could choose to keep some information secret -- exemptions that are allowed within the S.C. Freedom of Information Act -- but the board would not agree to keep entire settlements confidential, board Chairman Fred Washington Jr. said.

"I think we have to take these cases individually," he said. "We'll try to follow the law."

The chairman's comments follow a formal opinion released Friday by the S.C. Attorney General's Office that said the district wrongly agreed to keep secret a $60,000 cash settlement signed in May with former St. Helena Elementary School principal LaVerne Davis. The district had refused since June to release the settlement because it feared it would face a lawsuit from Davis for breaking the confidentiality agreement both parties signed.

In the opinion, Cydney M. Milling, an assistant attorney general, cited a 2003 S.C. Supreme Court ruling that prohibits a court from sealing a settlement agreement that involves a public body or institution.

The board, which released the settlement Friday, never voted on the contents of the settlement, and district officials say they weren't involved in agreeing on a settlement with Davis. The settlement was handled primarily by the S.C. School Boards Insurance Trust and its Columbia attorney, Kassi Sandifer.

Reached for the first time since the attorney general's opinion was released, Sam L. Svalina, Davis' Beaufort attorney, said he wasn't surprised by the attorney general's opinion.

"They're on the same side so to speak, aren't they? I wouldn't expect an independent opinion or unbiased opinion from the attorney general because that's a state governmental agency," he said.

Confidentiality clauses are commonplace in out-of-court settlements with school districts, Paul Krohne, executive director of the S.C. School Boards Association, said last week.

After hearing that the clauses are used frequently, Jay Bender, an attorney for the S.C. Press Association, said: "Then it's commonly breaking the law, and it's unfortunate, but the school boards in South Carolina have a reputation for doing everything they possibly can to keep business outside public view, and that's inappropriate in a democracy."

The Island Packet is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service