In November, the Charleston County School Board found itself in violation of the state’s freedom of information law when six members turned up for a tour of the renovated campus of the former Rivers Middle School. School officials explained that they didn’t expect a majority of the board to attend, thereby triggering the FOIA requirement for public notification of board meetings.
An accident? That’s how a district spokesman explained it.
But an item in a recent district notice emailed to school board members suggests that the practice may be more common than imagined. Under the heading of “Small Group Meeting” it states:
“A meeting is scheduled at the Town of Mount Pleasant at 9 a.m. on January 31st to discuss school funding. Mr. [Michael] Bobby is extending an invitation to Mr. [John] Barter and three other Board members to attend. ... Since no public notice will be done for this meeting, only four board members are allowed to attend. Another meeting will be scheduled if others are interested in this topic.”
If five members were in attendance, it would constitute a quorum, requiring public notice to be given.
Mr. Bobby, the district’s chief financial officer, tells us that the meeting will give new board members a chance to hear about issues related to funding schools in Mount Pleasant. Mr. Barter is among the recently elected board members. Town officials also are expected to attend.
Mr. Bobby explained the reasoning behind having a meeting of board members that doesn’t trigger FOIA requirements:
“We have to have the ability to do work,” he explained. “We’re not doing the public’s business. We’re doing training.”
To the contrary. What they are really doing is circumventing the law, which gives the public access to the public’s business.
School funding discussions that are designed to avoid the requirements of the state FOIA will erode confidence in the way the district spends school money — or to put it another way, the public’s money.
The board should stick to transparency as it discusses the public’s business.
Meanwhile, if an unexpected trustee or two were to show up at the Jan. 31 meeting, the district would again find itself in violation of the FOIA. That’s what happened at the November tour of the former Rivers Middle School campus, which is now being shared by the Charleston Charter School for Math and Science and the new Lowcountry Tech Academy.
Such a repetition of that blunder would diminish confidence in the board and the district.
Elected school board members shouldn’t countenance meetings that are meant to evade the public’s eye by limiting attendees to a number below a quorum. It violates the spirit of the law.