How is Lexington school district spending taxes? Board member struggles to find out

A Lexington school district is refusing to make public records available to one of its its own school board members unless she jumps through a few hoops first.

Lexington 1 board member Jada Garris says she wanted to know how much the district has paid in legal fees during the past six months, since she was elected. When she asked to see documents with those fees — which are paid for by tax dollars — Lexington 1 Superintendent Gregory Little declined her request, she said.

Instead, Little told Garris in an email that he needed approval from the majority of the school board to release the records, which are considered public under South Carolina law. If the majority of the board didn’t wish to see the information, Garris would need to file a Freedom of Information Act request, Little wrote, which can take 30 days or more to be fulfilled.

Under the state’s Freedom of Information Act, the district’s financial records are public. The act allows for some information to be withheld, including records protected by attorney-client privilege and school or medical privacy statues. That information can be redacted from public records.

Garris took her case to the state Attorney General’s office, which said the district should turn over the records.

Garris has a history of seeking documents from Lexington District One. Before she was elected to the board, she was a longtime bus driver for the district and a citizen watchdog. She’s filed almost two dozen requests for public records from the school district — including years’ worth of documents showing attorney’s fees, she said.

Garris has outstanding FOIA requests from as far back as 2017, she said, which sought information about processes for selecting architectural firms and other financial documents. She also has an ongoing FOIA lawsuit against the district over a variety of alleged FOIA violations, times when Garris says Lexington 1 did not make financial records, meeting recordings and other documents available to her. But Garris said her April 17 request for legal invoices has nothing to do with that legal case. She just wants to monitor the district’s expenditure of taxpayer dollars, she said.

Little said the problem is not the content of the documents, but the time and resources it would take the district to complete Garris’ request. Sorting through invoices and removing sensitive information — including that which could be related to Garris’ ongoing lawsuit — would take staff time.

“If we’re going to pull people off their duties and stop what they’re doing ... and ask them to take on this additional search, then . . . that’s something that the board should instruct us to do,” Little told The State.

If the request had been for information that is readily available and easy to find, Little said, he would have quickly answered Garris’ questions. The district also provides financial information to board members each month and keeps records up-to-date on its website, he said.

Garris said even if she submitted a FOIA request, the district would need to pull employees off of their work to find the documents, resulting in the same outcome.

Unsatisfied, Garris went to the South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson’s office with her questions on April 18. Assistant Attorney General Matthew Houck responded to her email and cited a previous South Carolina Supreme Court decision, Wilson v. Preston.

In the Preston case, the South Carolina Supreme Court upheld a ruling that said a county administrator “cannot deny a council member access to county financial documents,” Houck wrote to Garris.

“Although school district boards of trustees are created under separate statutory authority, they have a similar, if not greater, responsibility to manage a school district as a county council has for managing a county,” Houck wrote. “Therefore, it is my informal opinion that a superintendent cannot deny a member of a school board of trustees access to school district financial documents.”

Houck went on to say that Garris could not independently review unredacted documents with sensitive information, such as that protected by attorney-client privilege. However, the school district could still provide the documents to Garris with redactions if the school board did not approve release of unredacted versions, according to Houck.

Little said Lexington 1’s attorney, David Duff, told Little he is “not at odds with” Houck’s informal opinion because he gave Garris two avenues through which to obtain the information: board approval and the state’s Freedom of Information Act. Little added that the Lexington 1 school board’s policy instructs him to take direction from and action at the request of the whole board, not individual members.

“That role is to be a collective effort,” he said.

Garris said she doesn’t buy that — she said board members should act independently within the unit so there are a variety of voices and opinions.

“We were all elected with our own opinions and with a mind of our own,” she said.

As of May 3, the district had not provided the requested invoices to Garris, so she filed a FOIA request.

Isabella Cueto is a bilingual multimedia journalist covering Lexington County, one of the fastest-growing areas of South Carolina. She previously worked as a reporter for the Medill Justice Project and WLRN, South Florida’s NPR station. She is a graduate of the University of Miami, where she studied journalism and theatre arts.