Opinion: CSD hiding behind open records law

Posted by Dan Whisenhunt July 7, 2015
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


About Dan Whisenhunt

Dan Whisenhunt is editor and publisher of Decaturish.com. https://www.linkedin.com/in/danwhisenhunt

View all posts by Dan Whisenhunt

  • Lindsay

    Very well said, and I totally agree.

  • Disappointed Reader

    I’m not a fan of this tactic. Since Decaturish didn’t get what they wanted, it seems you’re seeking to blackmail the City with public outrage. Seems immature to me.

    • We are seeking information about a real estate purchase by a government entity, and reporting on the school board’s attempt to withhold that information. Our tactic is to report the truth and explain when government entities throw up a roadblock to our reporting. If you want reporters to smile and nod politely whenever our local governments do something that isn’t transparent, then maybe we’re not the news website for you. If it were not for the media asking questions, no one would’ve known about this. As long as I am running Decaturish, we will never be silent enablers of government secrecy.

      • Disappointed Reader

        I feel like I have sufficient transparency into this transaction. It’s not worth reading about again. Your talents are more valuable applied to some other newsworthy story.

        • I am a multi-tasker and will be following this issue closely, in addition to other issues that affect our community.

          • Good Job Dan

            Stay on the topic. Why do they protest so much? Sound reason to vote the referendum down and ask the Legislature to remove this loophole.

      • Steve Vogel

        I am in agreement with Disappointed. The law is clear. You’re the one trying to bend the law.

        • It’s not against the law to disclose the document. It’s only an exemption that allows CSD to withhold it and they are using it to prevent disclosure of what would otherwise be public information. They will legally have to disclose it at some point, but it will be well after the bond referendum in November, which means the public won’t have a chance to examine it first. As I said, if you want a news website that doesn’t look into these things or challenge our elected officials when they try to withhold information from the public, then we aren’t for you. The School Board hasn’t even held a public discussion about this. We aren’t going to ignore that.

      • An American Patriot

        Hey Dan, go for the jugular. We need to know what’s gong to happen before t’s too late. Also, would lke to know who’s beng held responsble for the DeVry Debacle and the whole sttory behng t. Ths was the perfect place

  • An American Patriot

    Now, now boys, let’s don’t get testy about this. I think Dan’s tactics are entirely appropriate in that the CSD never tells us anything, other than trying to get the citizens of Decatur to vote for a $75M Bond Referendum which they will not even tell us what they’re going to spend all that money on.

    Might I remind everyone again that a vote of YES for this referendum in November assures that your ad valorem taxes on your homes will increase by a substantial amount FOR THIRTY YEARS. I believe it’s high time that the CSD starts being a tad more transparent about their plans because time is drawing nigh and it seems to me that the CSD doesn’t want us to know because we might start questioning their judgment.

    Look, I know I say things here that some of you may not agree with; however, I do so because of my love for the City of Decatur and the School System that I attended many, many years ago. I don’t want another mistake made like the DeVry mistake. I want the CSD to make the BEST CHOICES for our city. I, and many of you may not agree, still believe that the City of Decatur already owns a parcel of property that coupled with the Decatur High School Property, would be a perfect place for another school. I’m talking about the Callaway Building which will be demolished next year. If housing units are developed on this property with retail along the street, it’s going to cause a traffic nightmare. Out of space.

  • Frankly

    “Trust but verify.” Dan is the ONLY news site willing to consistently pay attention to cities like Decatur and Avondale, and to make any effort to get information beyond press releases. I am grateful, since the AJC is more likely to run items from the LA Times than to ‘report’ on local issues. Asking questions is a good thing IMHO. Being told not to worry my pretty little head about something just raises more questions.

New Ben Ad
Banner Decaturish 300x250_April

Receive the Daily Email DIgest

* = required field