Clearly, freedom isn't free

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By Editorial Board

We don’t know who coined the phrase “freedom isn’t free” but they were more right than they probably even realized.

As you are no doubt aware by now, the Chester County School District is dealing with a pair of very high-profile lawsuits. Most recently, former Superintendent Dr. Agnes Slayman sued the district as a whole, Board Chair Denise Lawson and several other individuals for defamation of character and other issues. Current Superintendent Dr. Angela Bain filed suit a few weeks ago against Lawson and Ken Childs (a school district attorney) for basically the same thing. We’ve reported on the details of the lawsuits, but we’ve also sought to unearth documents that paint a picture of what’s going on in the district and what has led to the suits in the first place. The public image of our schools is taking a hit because of what is going on, taxpayers may end up on the hook financially at some point and so we think it is in the public interest to find and publish any relevant information. To their credit, the school district has responded in a timely manner to the numerous Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests we’ve filed and have provided some items at no charge. Some, but not all.

Among our recent filings was a request to be provided with all emails sent and received from Bain’s district-provided account from Jan. 1 of this year to July 23, which is the date she filed her lawsuit. What we’re looking for is signs of strife, tension or animosity between her and any member of the board, Lawson in particular. Bain is the county’s highest-paid public employee and the school board members are elected officials, so we think you deserve to know how they are acting on your behalf and on behalf of your children, particularly when their actions are leading to lawsuits. We received a prompt response to our request; one that acknowledged that the information we asked for is not exempt from release under the FOIA. That part was fine…then came the bill. The district says it can legally charge us “based on the hourly rate of the lowest-paid district employee who has the technical skills and experience to search, retrieve and redact the requested information.” They claim that person makes $40.82 an hour and they “reasonably anticipate” that the total cost to fill our request will be almost $30,000 ($29,904.04 to be exact). So, it will cost us the price of a new car or a sizable down payment on a home to be provided with roughly six-and-a-half months of emails.

We have a number of problems with that total, starting with the basic math. If you take $29,940.04 and divide it by $40.82, you get 732.5. So, the district is estimating it will take 732.5 man hours (more than 18, 40-hour weeks) to fulfill our request. The FOIA says we can be charged a fee “not to exceed the actual cost of searching for or making copies of records.” To be blunt, we find it bordering on ridiculous to think it will take someone dedicating 40 hours a week for more than four straight months to collect the information we’re asking for and redact some names where appropriate. We’d also like to know which $40.82-an-hour employee will be doing this work and why no one making anything less than that is qualified to copy and then edit emails.

We also question why the cost of obtaining emails has skyrocketed by 14,500 percent in seven years. In 2011, when Thomas Graves was placed on leave from his superintendent position and ultimately left the district, we filed a request for several months of his emails and those of every school board member. Those were printed out, redacted where needed and placed in three or four very large, very heavy boxes. We were charged a few hundred dollars for the cost of the paper, which we deemed reasonable and paid. When Slayman left the district in 2015, we requested six months worth of her emails. Those were copied on a disk and given to us at no charge. We understand the cost of doing business rises as time goes along, but not that much. Has the district undergone some official change in policy regarding the cost of providing copies of emails? When was that done?

Our biggest problem with the bill we were handed is that, essentially, the district is making some information off limits by pricing the local newspaper and almost any member of the public out of the market. Bill Rogers, executive director of the South Carolina Press Association (which advocates for open government) says he operates by the old axiom “The more they want to hide something, the more they try to charge.” We aren’t accusing anyone of doing that in this case, but people may perceive it that way. The FOIA also contains a provision that charges for information can be waived if what is being requested is in the public interest. As we’ve already explained, we feel that is the case here. We don’t mind paying reasonable fees for information and we know that freedom isn’t always free. At a bare minimum, it should be affordable, though.