Some Beaufort County school board members — who aside from high-level district officials are arguably the most entitled to information relating to the Beaufort County School District — say the current policy of going through the superintendent to receive information doesn’t always work.
Last month, board member JoAnn Orischak bypassed superintendent Jeff Moss and instead submitted a state Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for district information about outside counsel. It was something she had to do, she says, because she was stymied by Moss and the board chairwoman last summer when she followed procedure in her request for enrollment data related to her district.
More recently, another board member’s request for information from the school district was interpreted as a FOIA and he was quoted a $500 charge for it to be completed.
The school district denies that Moss is trying to make it difficult for any particular board member to get information.
“The superintendent responds to board members almost immediately when they request information, and he follows up if that’s needed,” school spokesman Jim Foster said in an email Friday. “If it’s a simple question from an individual board member, the superintendent responds to all board members with the information. We have 11 board members and we try to work with all of them in professional way. There’s certainly no effort to keep information from any board member.”
Under state law, FOIA requires public agencies, such as the Beaufort County School District, to supply public documents to a person requesting them. These requests are typically made by media and private citizens, not by public elected officials, though.
“I believe board members go through FOIA because they couldn’t get the information through the board channels,” board member David Striebinger said.
Orischak, who has often questioned Moss and board leadership in the fallout of Moss’ 2015 ethics violations, said she felt compelled to submit her first FOIA request in late April.
“I wasn’t confident that I was going to be able to get the information through the usual channels,” she said Tuesday night. “And yes, I am legally permitted as a board member to submit a FOIA request. I want to put that to bed right now.”
Her comments were directed toward board member Earl Campbell who said board members should be following board policy instead of submitting information requests to the district’s FOIA officer.
The board’s current policy states that information requests should be made to the superintendent, not to other district staff members. If the superintendent determines the request to require a significant amount of staff time to complete, the superintendent is “expected to see that the request is referred to the full board for authorization.”
It’s unclear whether taking the request to the “full board” means notifying the board chairwoman or actually presenting the request to the entire board during a public meeting.
“The confusion (on the correct policy) was evident Tuesday night,” Striebinger, who is chairman of the board’s policy committee, said Thursday.
At issue was a request that Orischak submitted to Moss by email almost a year ago for enrollment data and five-year projections of students living on Hilton Head Island.
Then-chairwoman Mary Cordray told Orischak that requests are supposed to go through the chairwoman unless the request is tied to the work of a specific committee, according to an email from Cordray that Orischak shared with The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette.
When Orischak asked where in the board’s policy it specifies that requests go through the chairwoman, Cordray responded that it is an unwritten policy that has been previously communicated to board members, according to the email exchange.
Orischak said she withdrew her request because it was estimated to take up to 40 hours of staff time to complete.
Moss explained that if a board member goes through the FOIA process, they are requesting information as any individual in the county and could be subject to fees.
Sticker shock set in for board member Joseph Dunkle when he was quoted $500 for an information request he said he didn’t even intend to be interpreted as a FOIA.
School district attorney Drew Davis forwarded a private citizen’s FOIA request for board members’ payments over the last 16 months to all board members on April 26. Dunkle replied to Davis with a request for the more detailed reimbursement forms from each board member for that same time period.
In hindsight, Dunkle said sending the request to Davis instead of Moss was “an error on my part in procedure.”
Davis forwarded the request to Jennifer Staton, the district’s FOIA officer, who estimated the cost to produce the request would be roughly $500.
“I find it absurd ... that a board member would be expected to pay $500 for documents to review district financials, specifically related to board member reimbursements,” Dunkle wrote in an email to Davis.
Dunkle narrowed the scope of his FOIA and requested forms for 16 check numbers that caught his eye.
The revised cost estimate to pull and scan the forms: $78.63 for 4.25 hours of work.
“I think that’s a stretch,” Dunkle said in reference to the revised cost estimate.
He said Wednesday he has sent his request to the superintendent to both comply with board policy and to waive the cost. On Friday, Dunkle was given access to the documents at the school district office, Foster said.