The Charleston School District needs to come clean about a four-year-old scandal in which an employee suspected of accessing child pornography was later accused of molesting two students. The employee has since died, and the school district paid $300,000 to settle a lawsuit filed on behalf of an 11-year-old student.
But for months, the district has effectively stonewalled a local television station’s Freedom of Information Act request for emails related to the scandal.
Despite changes made to South Carolina’s FOIA to make access to public documents easier and more affordable, the district has failed to meet deadlines for responding to WCSC-TV’s requests and set preposterously high fees for culling and redacting the emails.
Channel 5 was told its initial request for district emails involving the late Marvin Gethers would cost the station about $11,220, prompting the station to narrow its request to only emails to and from the principal during a few months in 2014 and 2016. That dropped the price to $2,485 — still a steep price to pay for public information the district presumably would have already culled, given the investigation and lawsuit. The station has since further narrowed its request.
Under the FOIA, “reasonable fees cannot exceed the cost of search, retrieval and redaction of records by the lowest-paid employee capable of the job.”
By law, the district has 20 business days to acknowledge request, then 35 days to produce the records. The district’s general counsel, Natalie Ham, said each request restarts the clock. She said she was unsure about the status of the latest request but would check on it.
What’s most troubling isn’t that the district is having trouble complying with the law in specific cases, but rather that it appears to have trouble in complying with FOIA requests in general.
In a related matter, the district has balked at turning over a list of legal settlements over the past the five years, according to WCSC-TV. The request was filed March 30. Finally, after threatening legal action against the district, the station recently received a letter from Ms. Ham apologizing for delays and promising the information in 10 business days, or by Nov. 8.
Either the district isn’t equipped to handle what appear to be relatively simple FOIA requests, or it hasn’t prioritized fulfilling the requests in a timely manner. Regardless, the district must improve its compliance with the law. If Ms. Ham’s office is overwhelmed with requests, the district should provide her with additional resources.
Separately, the district also has been under fire for erasing video that allegedly shows a boy being beaten up at school. Attorneys for the youth are now suing the district over what a judge called “grossly negligent” behavior.
The Freedom of Information Act doesn’t exist to embarrass public institutions, but is designed to provide transparency and accountability to the public. The district must do a better job on both counts.