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Education Lab

Charleston School District admits breaking open records law after SC Attorney General letter

AGN_Wilson zoom.JPG (copy)

The Charleston County School District has responded to a letter from the office of South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson. File/Elizabeth Hustad/Staff

The Charleston County School District has admitted violating the state’s open records law during a July meeting, and the board of trustees voted to correct their mistake Sept. 12.

After receiving several complaints from parents, Attorney General Alan Wilson sent a letter to CCSD’s board of trustees last month warning that if the district did not respond to parent allegations that it violated the Freedom of Information Act law, CCSD could face a lawsuit.

Parents alleged the board didn’t provide proper notice of agenda items at two recent meetings.

“CCSD takes these allegations very seriously,” Superintendent Donald Kennedy said in a letter Sept. 7 to the attorney general.

The letter acknowledges a mistake on behalf of district staff and details the district’s FOIA tracking process and strategy for publicizing meetings.

The board’s monthly Committee of the Whole meeting and regular board meeting, which are typically scheduled two weeks apart, took place on the same day on July 18.

This happens about three times a year, said board member Kristen French, to accommodate staff availability around holidays.

The same situation also happens in December and April because of Christmas holidays and spring break. In July, many CCSD staff take vacation the week of Independence Day, French said.

Usually, the items discussed at the Committee of the Whole meeting are later voted on at the board’s regular meeting. Because of the scheduling, four items were added to the board’s regular agenda the same day of the meeting.

The items included approving a timeline to move forward with a board governance restructuring, a health policy change, new K-8 English Language Arts curriculum and splitting the board’s policy manual in two.

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“Having done a review into what occurred on July 18, 2022, we have determined that staff erroneously added four items on the same day from the Committee of the Whole agenda, where those items had been discussed, to the regular board agenda,” Kennedy said in the letter.

Under FOIA, all meetings hosted by public bodies, such as school boards, must be open to the general public and officials must adequately notify the public of when the meetings will occur and what will be discussed.

The only exceptions in which meetings can be closed to public include discussions of individual employment matters, government security, alleged criminal misconduct and business negotiations.

In Wilson’s letter, which was the second he sent in a span of a week to a school district alleging misconduct, he warned that a consistent pattern of FOIA violations can lead to criminal prosecution for misconduct in office.

He asked that the board provide a general description of how the district attempted to comply with FOIA, a response to parent allegations and copies of the agendas, minutes and all documents related to the two July 18 meetings.

At the board’s Sept. 12 Committee of the Whole meeting, the board voted again on those four items. They all passed — the same result from July 18.

“We applaud the board’s decision and will continue to evaluate this school board and others around the state to make sure they follow the law,” said Robert Kittle, a spokesman for Wilson, told The Post and Courier. “The Freedom of Information Act is too important to government transparency for any school district or public body to ignore or circumvent.”

Andy Pruitt, the district’s communications director, said CCSD had no further comment beyond the letter provided to the attorney general.

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Reach Devna Bose at 843-830-4027. Follow her on Twitter @devnabose.

Devna Bose covers Charleston County schools for The Post and Courier’s Education Lab. A Mississippi native, she previously reported on race and social justice issues in Charlotte.

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