Smyth County School Board Uses FOIA to Make Obtaining Public Information Difficult

Superintendent Contract Renegotiation Smyth County School boardA previous article covered by the Maple Leaf Blog described some of the activities of the September 8th School board meeting using the Smyth County School Board’s approved September 8, 2014 typewritten minutes wherein a contract renegotiation for the Superintendent is described as follows:

“On motion by Mr. Grinstead, seconded by Mr. Veselik, by 6-0 vote, the Board in recognition of Dr. Robinson’s outstanding performance and with Dr. Robinson’s concurrence, terminated the division superintendent’s current appointment and employment, effective September 8, 2014; appoint and employ him to a term of four (4) years as division superintendent beginning July 1, 2014 and ending June 30, 2018; and authorize and direct the Chairman to finalize and execute on behalf of the Board a new contract with Dr. Robinson on terms substantially consistent with terms negotiated and agreed to by all parties.”

An e-mail request was sent to the school board secretary for an electronic copy of the audio minutes taken at the September 8, 2014 meeting.  On November 3, 2014, a response from Dr. Robinson indicated that he would be glad to comply with the request however, there would be a charge associated with the production of this public information. The reason given was “we have recently begun to follow our policies for records requests (KBA and KBA-R)

Previously in May, a same request had been made for the audio minutes of a school board meeting. This request was fulfilled at no cost and, for the most part, without question. It is unknown exactly why the Smyth County School Board has only now begun to enact existing policies. These existing policies were updated in 2012 and have existed since 1950 according to revision dates. With that being noted, it would seem likely that Dr. Robinson is taking issue with the production of specific information when that information may not be advantageous for him or the board.

The result is that full advantage is being taken of applicable policies under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for his and the board’s benefit in this case and to deter tax payers from accessing information that may clarify speculation surrounding the statement that appeared in the typewritten minutes.

The FOIA does make allocations for the actual cost to produce records in § 2.2-3704 (F) which reads as follows: A public body may make reasonable charges not to exceed its actual cost incurred in accessing, duplicating, supplying, or searching for the requested records. No public body shall impose any extraneous, intermediary or surplus fees or expenses to recoup the general costs associated with creating or maintaining records or transacting the general business of the public body. Any duplicating fee charged by a public body shall not exceed the actual cost of duplication.

In addition to the above, there’s also some information in Virginia State Code that references the posting and availability of minutes specifically in § 2.2-3707.1.  which reads in part as follows: All boards, commissions, councils, and other public bodies created in the executive branch of state government and subject to the provisions of this chapter shall post minutes of their meetings on such body’s website, if any. In everyday layman’s terms, this indicates that a public body is to post minutes on their public website. Smyth County School Board already does this but only to the extent of their approved typewritten minutes however, their audio minutes have not been available to date. These audio minutes are a part of the public meeting since they are also being maintained on file and there’s no reason that this information should not appear on the school board’s website downloadable and accessible for the general public. A fee certainly should not be suddenly associated with a request for the production of this type of information when an issue of clarification is at hand.

Several additional requests have been made for the September 8, 2014 school board’s audio minutes with the stated purpose to quell speculation. To date, those requests have been met with Dr. Robinson’s self-admitted compliance but only with a fee attached for which he is listing as “staff time to fulfill the request.”

There’s a problem when the general public is requesting the minutes of a public meeting and are being charged a fee for the same type and format of information that is usually publicly and readily available in other places in Smyth County. The School Board is presently one of the only organizations in Smyth County not providing information about their meetings to the fullest extent that they are maintaining such information.

In other words, they have a duty if they are taking and maintaining audio minutes to make that along with their regular typewritten minutes available and treat both as same where public access is concerned. There’s no fee associated with accessing the typewritten minutes from their website and there should not be a fee associated with accessing digital media if it were available–that’s the problem, it’s not being made readily available but they do maintain it as part of their public meeting!

Dr. Robinson’s intent to repeatedly make certain information difficult to access only continues to suggest that something of great interest to tax payers may be happening at school board meetings at the direct expense of those tax payers in Smyth County. It could even be viewed as bullying when the Superintendent also counteracts a request for information with a statement saying that the individuals questioning the nature of this particular meeting  are “disappointingly ill informed” and “accusatory” in nature.

The sources for information are by no means “ill informed” when the source cited is the actual approved minutes of the Smyth County School Board’s September 8, 2014 meeting. It certainly isn’t “accusatory” to point out that barriers are being placed between the public and their ability to obtain information that are clearly willfully designed to deter access to that information.

Once again, this is a prime example of the school board’s intent to continue operating in a manner designed to limit information available to the public. If their intentions are otherwise, why hasn’t the requested information simply been made available in good faith if, for nothing else, to clear up any speculation and clarify what actually took place at the September 8th school board meeting involving the Superintendent’s sudden contract renegotiation?

Please do your part as a tax paying citizen of Smyth County and hold your elected officials accountable for their actions whether it be voting unanimously to renegotiate a near half million dollar 4 year contract for one of the highest paid positions in the county or raising question about what happened at a previous school board meeting.  It is YOUR responsibility to be aware of how your tax dollars are being spent in this county and when the school board is allocated a large portion of those tax dollars for their use, we need to be very mindful of what’s happening.

Take a stand for more transparent operations of your school board and make a request for the production of audio minutes of the September 8th meeting. If enough people request the information and express concern about it, the school board will have no choice but to make a statement on the matter and to clarify the meaning of their statement appearing in the typewritten minutes which directly equates the renegotiation to outstanding performance indicating that some sort of a reward is forthcoming and likely at the expense of tax payers.

If there is not enough money to keep Sugar Grove Combined School fully functioning, there is no justification for expenditures elsewhere until the budget issues are resolved.

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  1. Pingback: Follow Up: Superintendent’s Contract Renegotiation | Sugar Grove Virginia

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