The cost of "Freedom?" About $30,000!

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By Staff Reports

Not only is freedom not free, it’s apparently not cheap either.

Recently, The News & Reporter filed a number of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with the Chester County School District in the wake of a lawsuit filed by Superintendent Dr. Angela Bain against School Board Chair Denise Lawson and Ken Childs, an attorney that handles some legal matters for the district. In part, Bain alleges the two conspired to defame her reputation “by actions and words” and as a result have caused her to be “embarrassed” and “humiliated” and caused her to sustain “mental anguish, reputational loss, diminished future earning capacity and lost reputation as well as…mental suffering.” In an effort to provide the public with more information and background on the suit, The News & Reporter has sought to obtain travel records, performance evaluations and emails from accounts used by Bain and school board members. The district recently provided Bain’s most recent evaluation and some other information at no cost. However, one request asked for all emails sent and received by Bain from Jan. 1 of this year up until July 23, the day she filed her lawsuit. The district did respond in a timely manner, but also said fulfilling the request would cost the newspaper tens of thousands of dollars.

“The district is fully within its right to charge you for actual costs associated with the search, retrieval and redaction of the records and information you seek in your request…the district may charge you based on the hourly rate of the lowest-paid district employee who has the skills and experience to gather the information in your request,” said the response, which was signed by Bain. “The hourly rate of the lowest-paid district employee who has the technical skills and experience to search, retrieve and redact the requested information is $40.82 an hour. In order to lawfully comply with your request, the district has determined that it must produce an estimated 8,791 pages of documents. The district reasonably anticipates that the total cost for production to be $29,904.04…the district requires receipt of a 25-percent deposit of the total cost for the record search. Upon receipt of the deposit in the amount of $7,476.01, the district will produce the requested records within 30 calendar days. The remaining balance must be paid in full at the time the requested documents are produced.”

News & Reporter Editor and General Manager Travis Jenkins questioned how that total was calculated.

“The FOIA states that the district can collect a fee that does not exceed the actual cost of searching for or making copies of records. So by my figuring, the district is telling us it will take more than 732 man hours to copy these emails and redact names where appropriate. Put another way, they believe it will take a person working 40-hours-a-week more than 18 weeks to fill our request. It is an understatement to say that we find that excessive,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins also noted that the FOIA allows for all fees to be waived if the information sought is “in the public interest.”

“Given the lawsuit that was filed, we feel possible interactions via email between Dr. Bain and school board members that could demonstrate acrimony or friction definitely qualify as a public interest,” said Jenkins.

The News & Reporter also requested three weeks worth of emails from all school board members. Bain’s lawsuit specifically referenced emails in the time frame requested from Childs to board members. The response noted that the cost would be about $1,700.

The News & Reporter made a nearly identical request regarding emails from former Superintendent Dr. Agnes Slayman in 2015 and was given 5,000 pages of emails on a disk at no charge. A similar request was made regarding former Superintendent Dr. Thomas Graves and all school board members in 2011. In that instance, the district printed thousands of emails and only charged the newspaper a few hundred dollars for the cost of paper.

Bill Rogers, executive director of the South Carolina Press Association (which advocates for open government) deemed the cost “exorbitant.”

“I also think the $41-an-hour is high,” said Rogers, who said the cost was restricting public oversight.

The News & Reporter will re-file its request and ask that the district consider the information to be “in the public interest” and waive all or most of the fees.