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Opinion: CSD hiding behind open records law

D'ish Decatur

Opinion: CSD hiding behind open records law

City Schools of Decatur Administrative Offices. Photo by Dena Mellick
City Schools of Decatur Administrative Offices. Photo by Dena Mellick

City Schools of Decatur Administrative Offices. Photo by Dena Mellick

On July 6 the state Attorney General’s Office released a disappointing decision regarding Decaturish.com’s complaint against City Schools of Decatur.

We believe the school system should release a sales contract for property it intends to purchase. CSD disagrees, and is using a provision of the Open Records Law to prevent the release of this information to the public.

The AG has concluded that CSD may legally withhold the sales contract for property along Talley Street and South Columbia Drive. CSD’s attorneys cite a provision in the law that says “real estate appraisals, engineering or feasibility estimates, or other records made by or for the agency relative to the acquisition may be withheld from disclosure until such time as the property has been acquired or the proposed transaction has been terminated or abandoned.”

CSD maintains that the sales contract falls into the category of “other records.” Decaturish had argued for the release of the contract, because it was approved during a (poorly attended) public meeting and many of the details were already public. The AG’s Office took up the complaint after Decaturish spoke with Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Colangelo. She agreed to send the letter on our behalf without officially offering an opinion about whether CSD was in violation of the Open Records Law.

Colangelo spoke to one of CSD’s attorneys, Debra Golymbieski, who informed her that “although many details of the contract have been released to the press and the public, there were still some details that had not been released.”

“Given that fact, she still believed (CSD) had a valid reason for wanting to keep those details confidential and asserting the appropriate exemption under the act,” Colangelo wrote. She later added, “(CSD) appears to have a good faith belief that doing so is necessary in this situation.”

Decaturish agrees that the City Schools of Decatur’s attorneys have found a technicality that will allow the school system to temporarily avoid disclosing this public record. We do not agree that CSD’s actions are in good faith, however. Here’s why.

Negotiations for a real estate purchase are given a cloak of secrecy under the state’s Sunshine Laws. The reasoning is a real estate purchase could be threatened if another buyer emerges and gets into a bidding war with a government entity. CSD’s arguments for withholding this record would make sense if all of the details of this transaction had remained confidential. But now CSD’s offer – about $5 million – is already on the table, as are the locations of the parcels CSD wishes to buy.

Anyone who wanted to disrupt the deal could already do so with the information available. CSD claims there are other contingencies that could also threaten the deal if they were revealed to the public. But CSD Attorney Bob Wilson has already disclosed some of these contingencies to an Atlanta Journal Constitution reporter. Wilson told the AJC that the purchase hinges on voters’ approval of the bond referendum that would allow the school system to borrow $75 million for school construction. He also discussed potential environmental issues with the property.

If the sales agreement is so top secret, why is Wilson discussing it with a reporter instead of the School Board discussing it with the public in an open meeting?

CSD and its attorneys are utilizing a straw man argument, using the vague threat of a theoretical buyer as a means to deter legitimate inquiries into this potential transaction.

Exemptions in the Open Meetings law have enabled the School Board to meet secretly in executive sessions for weeks to iron out the details of the sales contract. Decaturish has not raised objections to these meetings because we feel they were appropriate. But they require public vigilance to ensure that the process is not being abused. We feel it is the role of the media to represent the public’s interest, and we have done our best to document these closed-door meetings when we can. In some cases, the School Board has taken liberties with the exemptions the law allows.

We’ve pointed out, for instance, that CSD held a recent executive session at attorney Bob Wilson’s business office. Typically, School Board meetings are held at CSD’s central office. School Board members who spoke to Decaturish indicated that real estate transactions were among the items discussed at the May 6 meeting in question. Wilson said that due to the meeting occurring after regular business hours, holding it at the central office would’ve been inconvenient to CSD staff who might have to lock up the building afterward. But that argument is hard to square with the numerous other executive sessions the School Board has held at CSD’s central office, which presumably were just as inconvenient for school system staff.

While we are touched by Wilson’s concern for CSD employees, we are not convinced that is the overriding reason for having an executive session at his office.

Keeping up with this stuff is not easy. The CSD executive sessions last long into the night. It is often beyond our meager resources to wait until the wee hours of the morning to see if the School Board takes any actions afterward. Such was the case on June 9, when the School Board entered an executive session and reconvened at 1 a.m. on June 10 to go under contract for purchasing the Talley Street property. By that time, most of the public – including the media – had gone home.

CSD has a very critical need for new facilities, and it’s a topic that has come up frequently at School Board meetings and other public forums. We have observed School Board members struggle to explain how CSD will meet those needs, knowing that some of the real estate negotiations are confidential. Given CSD’s obvious need for space and the School Board’s obvious frustration with not being able to speak publicly about possible solutions, voting on this issue at 1 a.m. seems like an odd choice. Odder still was CSD’s decision not to bother telling anyone about it. For nearly a week, CSD said nothing until Bill Banks at the Atlanta Journal Constitution, who has been following the story doggedly, asked about it. Perhaps the rest of us would’ve asked too, if we had known the School Board was close to approaching a decision.

CSD has no problem sending a community-wide alert on any number of topics, from staffing changes to weather bulletins. The school system’s facilities needs are arguably the single most important issue facing CSD at the moment. And the School Board chose silence when it made a significant decision to try and address that need? We honestly have to wonder if CSD ever intended on telling the public about this. Given the track record so far, it is an open question.

Last month, Superintendent Phyllis Edwards told Decaturish there might be a discussion about the Talley Street property at the School Board’s July meeting. The agenda for July 14 School Board meeting has no item related to the Talley Street purchase. There is, however, another planned executive session to discuss “legal, personnel and real estate” issues. Will there ever be a public discussion about this?

There are those in the community who feel that CSD’s actions in regard to this potential purchase are totally appropriate. They say the School Board and its attorneys know what’s best in this situation. The track record of CSD, with its exemplary schools and personnel, should be enough reason to trust them, the argument goes.

Decaturish vehemently disagrees. The School Board’s attorneys know the technicalities in the law and the board’s actions indicate that its commitment to transparency is convenient. It’s wonderful that Decatur has great schools, but that’s not a hall pass for the School Board to avoid accountability for its actions. Remember, this School Board has asked the public to voluntarily raise school taxes by 8 percent in order to borrow $75 million to pay for school construction. But now the school system is reluctant to release information about how it intends to spend some of that money.

Does that sound like a School Board acting in good faith? It sounds to us like a School Board that lacks faith in its constituents to carefully vet the choices before them.

Now is the time for CSD to be more transparent, not less. The school system needs to stop hiding behind the shady spots left untouched by the state’s Sunshine Laws and start having a more transparent discussions about its plans for the system’s future.

Read more: Attorney General’s response to Open Records Act complaint filed by Decaturish.com