Wake schools says you could pay for public records, but most will be free

Updated on Oct. 1 with developments. Updated on Sept. 18 with corrections.

The Wake County school system could charge taxpayers to process some public records requests. But the district says that high of an expense would be rare.

The Wake County school board gave initial approval Sept. 17 and final approval Oct. 1 to a new public records policy that says a “special service charge” may be imposed on records requests that take at least eight hours to fulfill. School leaders say that only under “limited circumstances” will the charge be put on answering requests for information.

“The board’s intent is to make public records accessible free of charge except in the limited consequences set forth in this provision,” school board chairman Jim Martin said before the Sept. 17 vote. “That’s the culture that we all endorse and are glad to see in the policy.”

The board also gave initial approval Sept. 17 to a new policy that regulates who can fly drones over school property. Schools haven’t been allowed to fly drones since the end of the 2017-18 school year while the new policy was being developed.

Public records costs

North Carolina law allows agencies to impose a special service charge for requests involving extensive use of information technology and resources, including labor costs for the personnel providing the services.

Brooks Fuller, director of the N.C. Open Government Coalition, said in an interview Tuesday that local governments have increasingly begun to assess these special charges as their budgets have tightened.

Under Wake’s new policy, the district would consider eight or more hours to be “extensive” clerical or supervisory assistance. This could trigger a charge of up to $15 per hour for clerical time or up to $25 per hour for supervisory time.

(Original story said that Wake may charge up to $40 per hour. School officials say they are not discussing combining the two hourly rates.)

The policy says Wake would provide people an estimate of what the charge would be before assessing it on the request. This would give the person a chance to narrow the request to reduce or eliminate the cost.

The school district has received 500 public records requests over the past two years, most of which would not be affected by the charge, said Tim Simmons, Wake’s chief communications officer. (Original story said it was 500 requests a year.)

Simmons said he’s not aware of the district ever imposing a special service charge.

“The idea is to provide as many records as possible free of charge, which is the standard for school boards across the state and across the country,” Simmons told the school board on Tuesday.

Simmons said Wake has a strong history of releasing public records and that the new policy would codify things for the public.

Fuller said Wake’s policy is clearer than other governmental bodies in that it defines what’s extensive and sets a cap on hourly charges.

He contrasted Wake’s policy with how the Town of Youngsville initially wanted to charge $70,000 for a public records request from The Wake Weekly.

Special service charges

But Fuller said the coalition is still concerned that even a policy like Wake’s requires trusting that the government agency is giving an accurate estimate of how long it will take to fulfill the request.

“We’re still concerned when all this discretion is given to the public body to determine what is reasonable,” Fuller said.

At a school board committee meeting in August, school officials argued that a special service charge is needed when people make extremely time-intensive requests. For instance, one request led to 1.2 million records because the researcher wanted all emails over the past three years that mentioned the words “home,” “school” or “homeschool.”

Jonathan Blumberg, the school board’s attorney, said the charge would be a “last resort.”

“Remember that you have limited resources and lots of requests and a queue so if somebody has a voluminous request, it basically blocks other people from getting their’s as quickly as possible,” Blumberg said at the Aug. 27 committee meeting. “If everybody plays in a way that’s reasonable, then everybody can get their request in a reasonable time.”

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.