Originally created 12/22/99

School systems flunk

When it comes to knowing about Georgia's open records law, several public school systems in our area have a lot to learn. They'll usually cooperate with media representatives they know, but when someone unfamiliar asks for information, they require a written request.

The policy of Burke County Public School Superintendent Doug Day is typical: "We don't give anything out when you just come in and say `I want to see something.' My staff does not give it out because they're not really trained in what's open and what's not."

That's the problem. It's not that Day or other school superintendents withhold or cover up information (which isn't to suggest that never happens), it's that they don't understand the law -- in Day's words, "what's open and what's not."

The law does not require written requests for data that fall under the state sunshine law -- and that's about 95 percent of the information a school system has.

As the Rev. Jesse Jackson might say, "When in doubt, let the info out." And the prompter that's done, the better.

Requests do not have to come from a reporter or news organization to be honored. Any citizen off the street has the same rights as the media. There's not even a requirement that the citizen has to reveal who he or she is.

This is why Richmond County School Superintendent Charles Larke and his Columbia County counterpart, Tommy Price, were off base when their offices refused to divulge the superintendents' salaries without identification and a written request.

Lower level bureaucrats must learn they don't need to seek "written permission" before giving out public information. The law does give public officials up to three days to respond to a request, but in the vast majority of the cases there is no reason to delay.

The request for superintendents' salaries -- as well as anyone else on the public payroll -- should be honored forthwith. Who asks doesn't matter.

In a statewide survey, only 20 of 43 local school districts allowed superintends' salaries to be examined and copied. By any standard, that's flunking the test.

The first step toward a passing grade would be for school bureaucrats to remove the two words, "written permission," from their lexicon.


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