ESSEX – CHESTER – DEEP RIVER — On Thursday, the Region 4 Board of Education voted to drop an appeal of a two-year-old freedom of information (FOI) request by an Essex resident. The litigation had cost the district $23,771.50.
The request was originally made of the Region 4 board of education and superintendent on September 12, 2017 by James Carey. According to the Freedom Of Information Commission which was handling the appeal, Carey requested “all external and internal communications regarding the district’s plans to, and subsequent engagement of, SPIRAL International to provide foreign student services to the District, including, but not limited to, letters, emails, financial arrangements, memos, reviews or other from June 29, 2017 to the present.”
In short, Carey was seeking documents that could show how much the school district had spent in efforts to lure tuition-paying students from China to the district, as well as where that spending end up.
Region 4 was not fully responsive to Carey’s initial request — at first providing an incomplete set of documents, and later after providing documents, with 10 names of payees redacted. The district did provide 15 other names of payees, according to the commission’s final decision.
The district never provided Carey with the “sub-accounting records, such as receipts, invoices and expense reports, in response to his request.”
Earlier on January 30, 2018, the commission held a hearing on the district’s failure to turn over requested information and documents.
According to the final decision by the commission, “At the hearing in this matter, the respondents contended that they were not aware that the complainant was seeking sub-accounting records. The respondents pledged to search for any such records and, if located, provide them to the complainant…. It is found that, by his comprehensive request…the complainant was clearly seeking detailed financial records regarding the SPIRAL program. It is concluded that, by failing to provide the sub-accounting records promptly to the complainant, the respondents violated §§1-210(a) and 1-212(a), G.S., as alleged in the complaint.”
In that decision, the commission ruled in Carey’s favor and recommended that Region 4 provide all the sub-accounting records in addition to a non-redacted version of all documents.
Rather than follow this recommendation, Region 4 Superintendent Ruth Levy and board of education instead appealed the commission’s decision. That litigation continued until Thursday evening.
“Thank you for embracing your commitment to freedom of information and dropping the appeal,” said Essex resident Michael Hammond at the board of education meeting on Thursday. “I think it was unseemly that it was brought in the first place. Public agencies shouldn’t be suing to suppress the release of information unless it is for a good reason.”
The complainant Carey was also present at the meeting.
“I just want to say thank you,” he said. “I’m not taking a victory lap on this, but too much money was spent and it went on for too long. I’m just grateful that it’s done.”
In addition, Superintendent Brian White, who was recently hired to replace Levy after her retirement, took several steps with the board to improve budget and financial practices which have drawn recent press and public scrutiny.
The board voted to establish a capital sinking fund — two years after the board had attempted to use a capital sinking fund to purchase the 13-acre Mislick property.
The board and superintendent also discussed the timing of the annual audit. In each of the past several years, the district has requested an extension from the state to submit audit materials.
“At our last Region 4 meeting the administrative team was asked to reach out to our auditor, the firm is Mahoney in the area, specifically to ask about the timeline in which we conduct our end of year financial audit,” White said. “The concern was that historically or at least for the past several years its been relatively late. I have a meeting set next week with that firm to discuss timeline.”
Board members expressed concern that if Mahoney Sabol & Company was unable to change the audit schedule, the board would need to issue a request for proposal for a new auditing firm. The board decided to hold a special meeting to vote on an RFP in that eventuality.
“Thank you for cleaning up this budget, I can’t fathom why it was done the way it was in the past, but thank you,” said Rick Daniels, a Deep River resident and Region 4 school board member.
At the meeting, members of the public were complimentary of White’s work since his hiring in July, though Hammond did voice dissatisfaction at efforts to properly inform residents of all three towns on the status of the budget before budget season begins.
“One hiccup this week has been the article in the Valley Courier that does not state at least an understanding of anything that related to the vote that you just had,” Hammond said. “There will be a whole bunch of people in the towns that will have a mistaken impression that things are fixed and it will come back potentially to bite you during the budget process because people will think it’s done and we can move forward and we have money to spend and you’re still going to have to take cognizance of the fact that you still have these deficits. The way that gets cleared up will have an impact on your budget.”
Region 4’s board still must determine how best to pay for a current deficit resulting from the purchase of the Mislick property in 2017 for $379,916. Before that deficit was discovered, the board purchased a driveway and gas tanks for one of district school. The board also planned to replace the HVAC Coil at the middle school, curbing and sidewalks at the high school, to repair a chimney at the high school, and to add lighting to the senior parking lot. Together those expenses total $131,000.