Officials' judgment, reason should play a role

School leaders don't have to only follow lawyers' advice

info@islandpacket.comAugust 19, 2012 

Some unfortunate conclusions can be drawn from Beaufort County school board members' responses to the district's handling of a documents request from this newspaper:

  • Board members rely solely on their lawyers' advice and not their own judgment, abrogating their responsibilities as public officials.

  • The lawyers give advice that accomplishes what board members want.

  • Missing is evidence of a strong desire to fulfill the stated purpose of South Carolina's Freedom of Information Act: "It is vital in a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner so that citizens shall be advised of the performance of public officials and of the decisions that are reached in public activity and in the formulation of public policy."

    Expediency, not openness, seems to take precedence.

    At issue this go-round is an email written by former Hilton Head Island High School athletics director Mark Karen to principal Amanda O'Nan and very critical of superintendent Valerie Truesdale's handling of the firing of former football coach Tim Singleton. The email, which accused Truesdale of lying to the media and interfering in the disciplining of Singleton, was not included in the district's answer to our Freedom of Information Act request.

    We're told district officials followed attorneys' advice when they took it to Karen to see whether he deemed it "private."

    Very troubling was board chairman Fred Washington Jr.'s response when asked about the district's actions:

    "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."

    The fact that the email came from other sources does not lift responsibility from district officials to follow the law.

    Board member George Wilson's response also is troubling:

    "Usually what we do is listen to our attorneys. For me to have an opinion on it would be just an opinion."

    With all due respect, Wilson and the other board members were elected to exercise their judgment on public matters. His opinion matters to his constituents even if it doesn't matter to him.

    And lawyers don't always come up with the right answer.

    The Childs and Halligan law firm, which represents the Beaufort County district, did the Berkeley County school board few favors when it set up a superintendent evaluation system handled by the law firm and then argued that it fell under "attorney-client privilege" and so was protected from public scrutiny. The firm even argued it could withhold a blank questionnaire from The (Charleston) Post and Courier.

    The state Supreme Court said no. Exemptions to the law, the court said, should be narrowly construed so as not to provide a blanket prohibition of disclosure.

    In 2007, the Beaufort County School District attempted a similar end run when it sought to keep secret the terms of a lawsuit settlement with a former principal. One of the reasons cited was that the attorney who handled the matter provided a copy of the agreement in her role as legal counsel. That made the agreement exempt under the law, the district said.

    But that was put to rest with a state Attorney General's opinion that cited the open records law and a Supreme Court rule that settlements involving public entities cannot be kept secret.

    School board member Bill Evans attributed the disagreement over the email 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."

    Yes, sometimes attorneys disagree. But where in this scenario is thoughtful consideration and the exercise of judgment from the people who hire the attorneys. It seems necessary sometimes to remind the school board that the attorneys work for them, not the other way around.

    School officials should not suspend reason and judgment just because they have access to lawyers. Public officials are the people held accountable, no matter the lawyers' advice. It is, after all, advice.

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