2 of 3 school board chairmen in Blount County see no need to charge to view public records

The Daily Times in Maryville asked the three school board chairmen in Blount County what they thought about changing the law to allow local governments to charge citizens to view public records.

Two said they saw no need for it in their school districts, while the third appeared to rely on an example that wouldn’t even apply.

The Blount County school board chairman who favored allowing new fees described a situation in which the school district’s fiscal administrator spent several hours writing responses for a citizen about the school district’s budgets. “Each item dealt with finances and interpretation of policy, and he wrote two- to three-paragraph responses to educate the reader about each issue. He spent between 25 hours and 30 hours working on it,” Blount County Board of Education Chairman Trevis Gardner told The Daily Times.

The chairman’s example demonstrates the type of problem with introducing fees for citizens to view public records – the very real possibility that fees could be wrongly attached to all kinds of time spent communicating with citizens, but unrelated to the actual production of public documents.  Do local school districts want to start charging for all the time they spend picking up the phone, formulating answers to citizen questions, giving them information, helping citizens understand how their governments work, dealing with people who are upset?

The Tennessee Public Records Act is simple. It secures the rights of citizens to freely view public records that already exist – records that have already been created with the use of taxpayer money.

S.B. 328/H.B.315, one of the top legislative priorities of the Tennessee School Boards Association, would institute fees to exercise this right, and open a Pandora’s box of misinterpretations and potential fee inflation that could block access to an open government. (To understand how widely misinterpreted open government laws can be, consider that in 2014 some school boards continued to misapply a 1995 Attorney General’s opinion, thinking they had the right to throw TV news crews out of public meetings if they didn’t like how the news agency was covering them.)

Unlike the Blount County school board chairman, the school board chairmen for the Maryville and Alcoa school districts did not think citizens requesting to view public records creates an undue burden, and did not see how they would want to charge for such requests.

Following is an excerpt from The Daily Times’ story: Bill seeks to charge citizens for records inspections:

“I support this legislation,” said Blount County Board of Education Chairman Trevis Gardner. “Our school systems are precariously funded, and this bill gives districts a way to make systems whole when there’s extraordinary demand for staff time.”

Blount County Director of Schools Rob Britt designates Assistant Director of Schools David Murrell and fiscal administrator Troy Logan as record custodians, Gardner said. Murrell addresses curriculum and personnel requests, and Logan addresses financial requests. Both are salaried employees.

“We have an expectation that our administrators will make time and respond to these requests,” he said. “However, we don’t want to allocate more resources than we need to the Central Office. We want to direct those resources at the classroom.”

Logan recently responded to a “lengthy, written request” pertaining to 23 budget items, Gardner said. “Each item dealt with finances and interpretation of policy, and he wrote two- to three-paragraph responses to educate the reader about each issue. He spent between 25 hours and 30 hours working on it. If the district got three to four requests of that scale every month, it’d be equivalent to a part-time position that’s unfunded.

“Blount County needs its administrators focused on the classroom, because financial resources are scarce. With an absence of designated state funding, this bill provides us with a way to get funding.”

Cities not affected

“I don’t see the bill impacting us locally,” said Maryville Board of Education Chairman Doug Jenkins. “However, I understand how it could be an issue for larger districts like Metropolitan Nashville (Public Schools) or Shelby County (Schools).

“I don’t think it’s an issue we would address in Maryville. If it became an issue, we would first hold lengthy conversations as a board and meet with community members. I don’t imagine us doing anything with it, though.”

“I don’t think this bill would affect us,” said Alcoa Board of Education Chairman Steve Marsh. “We’re a small district, and we don’t get a lot of public records requests to my knowledge. We wouldn’t address the matter unless it was an issue.”

What do you think?