Tuesday, September 26, 2023

NHCS to tack on fees, weighs cost of FOIA software to accommodate high demand for public records

New Hanover County Schools plans to charge for public records requests that require more than four hours of work. (Port City Daily/Pexels)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY –– New Hanover County Schools is considering tacking on charges in response to an inflation of broad public records requests. One board-of-education member suggested the change is an attempt to curtail the public’s right to information by assigning dollar amounts, while her colleagues argue the overwhelming size of some submissions has overtaken employees’ duties.

A revised version of Policy 5070 is up for a vote Aug. 3, during the board’s next regular meeting. The policy asserts the district’s commitment to delivering public records and outlines how requests for information are handled.

New language proposed would implement a fee of 25 cents per printed page and additional charges for requests that take more than four hours to fulfill.

RELATED: NHCS addresses critical race theory, picks up where it left off after unruly meeting

Before releasing the records, the district would give an estimate of any charges to the requester and ask whether they’d like to proceed with payment or narrow the scope of the search.

North Carolina public records laws allow for such a “special service charge,” but only when reasonable and based on the actual cost incurred for extensive use of resources or personnel.

Board member Judy Justice voiced concerns about the new fees during the board meeting Tuesday.

“We’re charging the public and, yet, the public is paying the school district with their taxes,” Justice said. “So I’m a little confused as to why we’re adding extra costs to something they’re already paying for.”

Vice chair Nelson Beaulieu, who chairs the policy committee, said one records request filed through NHCS pulled up more than 400,000 emails, all of which had to be individually reviewed. If it was printed, it would cost the school system $100,000 (considering the cost of paper and ink actually adds up to 25 cents per page).

Chair Stefanie Adams pointed out even when requests are digital, the district’s attorneys and communications department is spending a significant chunk of their time filling the request.

“It’s taking away from their jobs to do,” Adams said. “Public records requests are part of their responsibility, but when it becomes all encompassing, I do agree that there needs to be some sort of fee.”

Justice responded, accusingly, “So in other words, you are using this as a way to try to discourage the public from requesting information.”

Board member Stephanie Kraybill, who also serves on the policy committee, explained legal counsel suggested the policy on behalf of the North Carolina School Board Association. She said other school systems across the state are adopting fees and “don’t have anywhere near the large number of requests” that NHCS has.

In 2020-21, NHCS received approximately 56 public record requests, not including media inquiries. As of Thursday, approximately 31 requests were completed and 25 were pending.

To compare, New Hanover County’s communications office facilitated approximately 55 records requests so far in 2021, not including documents requested through the Building Safety Department or Register of Deeds.

New Hanover County chief communications officer Jessica Loeper said the county typically does not charge a fee but will, when necessary, to cover the cost of copies or the method of delivery. She said usually staff is able to work with requesters to taper wide-ranging requests by explaining it will take longer to receive.

“I am not aware of a time since I have worked with the county when a requester has been charged a fee for a records request based on the amount of time it takes,” Loeper said.

Pender County Schools communications coordinator Alex Riley could not immediately share a number for records requested from the district this year. He said the system receives few formal submittals, and he is more likely to satisfy someone’s request for information over the phone.

Similarly, Brunswick County Schools’ chief communications officer said he only counted 17 public records requests in 2021. He indicated most people rely on him for information.

“I don’t know if other systems require public records requests for everything,” Daniel Seamans said. “If it’s readily available info, for the most part, I try to just give it to you as quickly as possible.”

Justice suggested the burdensome number of records requested from NHCS are the result of the “circumstances” the district has faced in recent years, and she hoped it would eventually normalize. NHCS has faced several sexual abuse scandals by different employed offenders since 2018. Plus, local education issues are becoming increasingly contentious and politically divisive, especially since pandemic restrictions in schools and reopening debates have created new interest in school board business.

NHCS reported receiving one request totaling over 100,000 emails for a search on “social justice,” “critical race theory,” and “transgenders in girls sport.” The requester asked for all communication, including emails, letters, meetings and call logs. Each item had to be individually reviewed, said Russell Clark, the district’s media relations manager.

Attorney Deborah Stagner and law firm Tharrington Smith inspect and redact private personnel or student information or privileged attorney-client communications. Clark said the lawyers do not review all requests, but do review the ones with the potential of revealing confidential details.

A total of $22,598.50 –– approximately 12% of NHCS’ legal expenses from April 2020 through March 2021 –– was spent assisting the communications team with media and public inquiries and record requests, according to a presentation Stagner gave to the board in June.

The district is now weighing the cost of FOIA software NextRequest to help condense demand.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools uses the same program. The system allows submissions through a website and offers the ability to sort through other responses already filed, which should cut down on the number of repeat requests.

Clark said before making any decision, the communications staff is considering what the new budget passed this month looks like for its department. NextRequest sent NHCS a quote for $19,687, including the one-time setup cost, if signed by the end of August. 

The proposed revamp in handling public records requests comes just as NHCS faces significant turnover in its communications department. Last month, Josh Smith took over the role of communications officer, the district’s third in two years.

Clark replaced Brandon Shope, who now serves the Wilmington Police Department, in May.

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Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands is a journalist covering New Hanover County and education. Before Port City Daily, she reported for the award-winning State Port Pilot in Southport. She graduated from UNC Charlotte and wrote for several Charlotte publications while there. When not writing, Williams is most likely in the gym, reading or spending time with her Golden Pyrenees. Reach her at alexandria@localdailymedia.com or on Twitter @alexsands_

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