School board members satisfied with district's handling of records request,

rheaton@beaufortgazette.comAugust 11, 2012 

Beaufort County Board of Education members say they're satisfied with the way the school district handled a recent public records request, despite concerns raised by a Freedom of Information Act expert.

The Beaufort County School District recently withheld an email critical of superintendent Valerie Truesdale when it answered a public records request made by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. The district said releasing the email, written by former Hilton Head Island High School athletic director Mark Karen, would have violated Karen's privacy.

School board members said the district did the right thing in relying on its attorneys' interpretation of the Freedom of Information Act.

"Usually what we do is listen to our attorneys," board vice chairman George Wilson said. "For me to have an opinion on it would be just an opinion."

The district's attorneys told the district to ask Karen which emails he thought were private, spokesman Jim Foster has said. Karen marked that email, which the papers obtained from two other sources, as private.

But Jay Bender, an attorney for the S.C. Press Association said the email should not have been withheld. Bender said he could think of "no legitimate reason" for the email not being turned over, and added that the law and legal precedent holds that public employees cannot expect privacy when discussing a public employee's performance with a public email account.

School board member Bill Evans said the disagreement is likely due to different interpretations of the law.

"When we got the request, it's obvious we talked with our attorneys, and our attorneys said 'You don't have to give them this stuff. This is stuff we think is private,' " Evans said. "Other attorneys think the opposite."

Evans, Wilson, chairman Fred Washington Jr. and board secretary Laura Bush said the board was not involved in the handling of the public records request and had not discussed the issue.

Attempts to reach board members Julie Bell, Michael Rivers, Earl Campbell, Herbert Burnes and Ron Speaks were unsuccessful.

Several board members said it was time to put the issue in the past.

"The fact is that every bit of information that has been requested was received, whether that was through the district or through some other source," Washington said. "I look at it as something that's behind us."

Follow reporter Rachel Heaton at twitter.com/HomeroomBft.

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