School Board Members Call for Review of Public Records Fee Charges

School Board Members Call for Review of Public Records Fee Charges

Questions arose over how request for expense data was handled

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Some Montgomery County school board members are seeking a review of when the school system charges fees to provide public records.

The inquiries were prompted by a Bethesda Beat request to see 12 months of expense reports for school board members and the superintendent. MCPS responded that the fee would be $115 and declined to waive the fee as a matter of public interest, as Maryland state law allows.

In interviews this week, some school board members said the district’s response to the Bethesda Beat request under the Maryland Public Information Act (PIA) warrants further review. They said they want to know how officials determine the cost associated with gathering and sharing public documents.

In August, Bethesda Beat asked to see records showing reimbursements to school board members and the superintendent for their district-related expenses during the last fiscal year. The request also was for receipts made on school system-issued credit cards during the same timeframe.

The district said its $115.56 fee was based on three hours of time to review and possibly redact 100 pages of records, based on a communication specialist’s wage of $38.52 an hour.

The PIA says the first two hours of labor to fill a request must be at no charge, but the district said those first two hours were exhausted in collecting and reviewing the records. Work to redact the documents would take three more hours of work according to MCPS. Thus, the district is estimating it will take five hours total to gather and provide records.

School board members interviewed this week agreed that the documents are in the public interest and should be disclosed, but said they were unsure whether a fee should be required.

Maryland’s Public Information Act says government bodies may waive the fee for information if the waiver is “in the public interest.” MCPS frequently honors those waiver requests.

This time, though, MCPS Communications Specialist Joanne Causey wrote: “With the persistent increase in MPIA request submissions, we feel it’s necessary to hold firm on fees. We also believe we need to be judicious with tax-payer resources.”

“I’ve always felt expenses and reimbursements are in the public interest and should be public,” school board Vice President Pat O’Neill said in an interview. “Whether there should be a fee is a whole different conversation.”

Board member Jeanette Dixon said that she was “disappointed to hear that’s what we had done.” She said she directed the board’s chief of staff to “look into why we were charging you.”

“We should look into it. It makes us seem like we’re trying to hide something and, frankly, I really don’t feel we really have anything to hide. We’re doing the public’s business on behalf of our children and I’m proud of the work we do,” Dixon said. “I think when you’re leading something … you’re going to receive scrutiny and we, as leaders of the school system and the superintendent, should expect we’re going to get the same.”

The Bethesda Beat request for credit-card receipts was based on the district’s past practice of having board members and administrators use district credit cards for expenses. However, the district changed its financial procedures five years ago after improper and questionable credit-card expenses by board members and at least other official.

The state prosecutor’s office investigated the spending, but found no crimes.

One change the district made was no longer issuing credit cards to board members.

Instead, board members can be reimbursed for travel, lodging farther than 50 miles from the central offices and meals purchased during official board business, according to the Board of Education Handbook.

Board members cannot be reimbursed for meals of other people. Many expenses require preapproval from the board’s chief of staff, president or vice president. School board members receive a “per diem allowance” when attending professional conferences or similar events.

The handbook says an external audit of board members’ expenditures is conducted annually.

The school board’s Fiscal Management Committee met on Monday morning with an agenda item titled “Board Expenditure Report Fiscal Year 2019,” but there was no discussion about the report.

Documents associated with the report were posted online Tuesday afternoon. They show how much money each board member received for travel and to attend events.

The report only has aggregate totals for board member expenses. There is no breakdown for individual charges.

Student school board member Nate Tinbite said he agreed with Dixon that board members should look deeper into who is charged fees for public records and why those fees are necessary.

“As a board, we do this work for the public. While I do agree the information is in the public interest, I think we should really look into this, so when there is a fee, there’s some perspective and understanding about the work that is causing that fee,” Tinbite said. “It should be heavily looked into because when you put costs on documents, there might be barriers for people who are not able to retrieve those. We need to understand who’s paying for that and why.”

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com

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