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NHCS to start charging fees for some public records requests, will finally post documents ahead of meetings

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NHCS
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NHCS

The New Hanover County Schools district draws a lot of public interest, including public records requests and questions about what will be discussed at upcoming meetings. Handling that interest has been, at times, challenging.

At Tuesday night’s meeting, the Board of Education discussed several policies including 5070, which covers public information about upcoming meetings, and 2330, which covers public records requests.

Agenda documents

The primary issue with 2330 has been that NHCS has not posted agenda materials ahead of time, sometimes posting documents to its website just hours before a meeting. These documents often include proposed changes to policy, proposed agreements with other organizations, and reports.

It’s worth noting that this was not primarily a logistical issue, as board members had access to these documents several days before meetings — they just weren’t released to the public.

That’s in contrast to other government boards — like the City of Wilmington Council and New Hanover County Board of Commissioners — which post agendas and supporting documents online several days ahead of their meetings.

Parents and advocacy groups have asked the district to adopt this practice, to allow them to address issues during the 'call to the audience' section of board meetings. Several media outlets, including WHQR, have also requested the advanced posting of agenda documents to facilitate accurate reporting ahead of meetings.

Some board members, including Vice Chair Nelson Beaulieu, seemed hesitant to do this, arguing that providing documents ahead of time could create situations where, for example, policy documents could be misinterpreted, leading to confusion ahead of meetings.

But, now the board has changed its approach and will make agenda documents public five days ahead of meetings. Beaulieu noted the new approach was in response to “questions for our media partners,” leading the district to provide documents to reporters in a “timely matter so they can do their jobs” — although, certainly, many members of the public have taken an interest in school board meetings.

Public records

The public has also taken an interest in public records requests which, under state law, allow the request of public documents not protected under state law. These requests also come from the corporate sector — where companies might, for example, want to learn about school-related contracts — and, of course, the media as well.

Some of these requests have been for considerable volumes of information. According to Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust, the district has received some requests covering upward of a million emails, dating back five or six years. The district simply doesn’t have the staff resources to handle these, and has been turning over emails for review — to make sure confidential information is redacted — to its law firm, Tharrington, Smith.

There, the hourly cost of reviewing requested material by an attorney could run over $200 per hour — a cost the district is not allowed to recoup from those making requests (per state law). Recently, the district has had to pay roughly $22,000 for these services.

So, the district is now hiring a new administrative position that will handle some of these requests, along with other duties like manning the district’s recently-reactivated Covid-19 dashboard. The position will be under the communications department and, with benefits, will cost around $50,000 a year.

The district is also developing a fee schedule for public records request that tax staff time as part of Policy 5070 — a move that is allowed under state law when it a request will “require extensive use of information technology resources or extensive clerical or supervisory assistance by personnel.”

According to Chief Financial Officer Mary Hazel Small, the administration plans to present a fee schedule to the board in October. Chief Communication Officer Joshua Smith noted that this schedule will allow the district to give those making public records request an estimate of what their costs will be before requests are filled; the district will apply the fees for requests that require more than four hours of staff time, and only the amount of time over that four-hour mark. Smith noted that the majority of requests received by NHCS fall under that level.

Smith also told the board that the district bid on software this week, with funding from the communications department, to help it process public records requests; the same software will also allow the district to post requests online — likely including who filed them, what their status is, and the results of the request for others to inspect — a move Smith said was an important transparency move since, as he noted, public records requests are also a public record.

Board members Judy Justice and Stephanie Walker expressed concerns — with Justice noting that the fee schedule could discourage public inquiries — and both asked the policies be pulled for further discussion and tweaks, but were outvoted, 5-2.

Below: Policies 5070 and 2330.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature.