Openness and transparency are cornerstones of the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act. The law shines a light on how decisions are made and provides the public with critical context on issues.
That’s why the Charleston County School District is wrong to withhold details from the public about Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait’s annual evaluation.
Board members discussed their written evaluations behind closed doors Nov. 27. The district released a statement afterward saying Postewait had earned a “met” expectations overall score but provided no details to the public about her evaluation.
The Post and Courier asked for the filled-out evaluation forms from each board member, including any written comments. But the district withheld most of that info, and instead released only an anonymous table of board members’ numerical scores. Letting the public see the forms from the individual board members would provide details and insight into the group’s observations beyond simple numbers.
District staff attorney Natalie Ham told the newspaper that the documents didn’t have to be disclosed to the public. She cited a section of the FOIA that protects “information of a personal nature where the public disclosure thereof would constitute unreasonable invasion of personal privacy.”
Post and Courier attorney Jay Bender thinks that’s a stretch, arguing that the district’s response violates the state’s government transparency law. “The response is inconsistent with the law,” he said, “and there is no exemption that would shelter the evaluation instrument completed by each school board member.”
On Thursday, the district inched closer to doing the right thing, releasing a list of the board members’ names and their corresponding “numbers” on the evaluation summary. It’s another incremental step toward transparency but still represents an “absolute disregard of the law,” Mr. Bender said.
“There’s absolutely no privacy interest in either the superintendent’s performance or the board members’ evaluation of the superintendent,” he said. “If you want to be a high-level public employee you understand that your job performance is going to be subject to public appraisal.”
This isn’t the first time a local school district has tried to keep detailed information about evaluations out of the public eye. The newspaper’s parent company sued the Berkeley County School District for refusing to release board members’ written evaluations of then-district Superintendent Chester Floyd. The district funneled the individual evaluations through an attorney and then argued that releasing the documents would violate attorney-client privilege and the FOIA privacy exemption.
The court ruled in favor of transparency in 2011, saying the “FOIA should be broadly construed to allow the public to gain access to public records.” It helped reveal a 5-4 split among board members over the superintendent’s performance.
In another transparency case, the S.C. Court of Appeals ruled in 2004 that employment files of deputy sheriffs were public record, finding that “the manner in which the employees … prosecute their duties to be a large and vital public interest that outweighs their desire to remain out of the public eye.”
One of the concerns with the district’s denial is that the newspaper has a near-daily dialogue with the school district or board members. If reporters who deal with the district all the time, and are trained to gather information, have difficulty getting public documents, imagine the roadblocks a citizen would face when asking for the same information.
There is no doubt that some conversations and information can make for uncomfortable moments if opened up to the public, but the courts have clearly come down on the side of openness and transparency.
The district must provide the full evaluations to the public. To do otherwise erodes confidence in the school system. At a time when the integrity of government increasingly is viewed with cynicism and subject to continuing criticism, it would be good if some of the wounds weren’t self-inflicted.