A Summer of Freedom of Information Hurdles
An Arkansas reporter questions a small-town school board
Investigative journalists dig.
They search for facts. Sometimes facts are gathered by interviewing people. Other times a source gives a lead that pans out, but sometimes it doesn't. Investigative journalists also utilize the Freedom of Information Act also known as FOIA.
The Arkansas FOIA was signed into law in 1967 by Governor Winthrop Rockefeller.
According to the Arkansas Attorney General's website, FOIA is “one of the most comprehensive and strongest open-records and open-meetings laws in the country.” The website also lists more details about FOIA:
The law gives Arkansans access to public records and public meetings, with some exceptions.
A public record is defined as any writing, sound or video that reflects the performance or lack of performance of an official function.
All records maintained by public employees within the scope of their employment are presumed to be public records, though several exemptions may shield a record from disclosure.
Government entities generally have up to three business days to provide a record requested under the FOIA.
FOIA was created for the citizens of Arkansas to ensure transparency of the government. Any resident of Arkansas can request records under FOIA.
Journalists use it as a tool, too, often to uncover information from federal and state agencies. This information can include documents, emails, contracts, videos and other materials that shed light on the activities of county, city, state and federal agencies. Journalists then use this information to write stories to educate their readers.
FOIA is critical to the state of the nation. The people have a right to know. That includes the actions of school boards.
Most school board members are elected by voters in their communities.
According to the National School Boards Association, “The school board represents the community’s voice in public education, providing citizen governance and knowledge of the community’s resources and needs, and board members are the policy-makers closest to the student.”
Additionally, the Association states: “The school board is the community’s education watchdog, ensuring that taxpayers get the most for their tax dollars.”
Many Arkansas school boards hold work sessions for board members to gain knowledge about school issues. No official business, proposals or votes occur, according to the Arkansas School Boards Association.
Schools are not required to have work sessions, but if they do, they must be recorded and open to the public. Monthly and special called board meetings are also open to the public.
I received a tip to obtain the audio from the Sheridan School District’s April 2023 work session.
The work session was a meeting between the school's attorneys and the Sheridan school board and administration to learn about FOIA. In that meeting, school board members discussed personal financial interest and contracts with the school. Listen below.
My interest peaked.
Without attending work sessions and board meetings, the public or reporters would not know all of the details surrounding the decisions made for a school district. Some districts livestream their meetings in full transparency. Others like Sheridan do not.
Without record retention laws, this audio would eventually be lost. That’s because school boards have different policies about record retention. Some school boards only keep audio files for one year.
The law requires that all regular meetings, or general sessions, have written minutes to create a permanent record of the public’s business. Board minutes like the one below is often the basis for a FOIA request due to limited information
It is important to note that a school board not only sets the direction of a district, but they also control a sizeable chunk of the local economy including a portion of property taxes.
According to an article by the U of A Division of Agriculture Research and Extension, in 2016, “Arkansas public schools received 77% of property tax dollars — about $1.8 billion in funding.”
Armed with this information, I decided under FOIA to request financial documents about board members and the school.
This started a spiral into a FOIA battle throughout the summer.
In Arkansas the superintendent is the custodian of the school’s records and is supposed to acknowledge the receipt of a FOIA request. Sheridan’s superintendent Karla Neathery did not acknowledge my FOIA request. Instead, the school's communications director, Andy Mayberry, did. Note: Not every school district can afford a communications director.
Sometimes a school or government agency may request more than three days to complete a FOIA request. I understand that documents may not be easily located especially when they date back several years and an entity may need extra time
To Mayberry’s credit, he released documents as he found them, which led me to request more information through FOIA. My initial request, however, took more than a month to fulfill, which is unacceptable.
The summer was a swirl of questions and back-and-forth emails fighting for the documents and answers I wanted. Even the new school board president emailed. My assumption from his email to me, the administration and his fellow board members: The district wanted positive stories.
I’m all for positive stories. But I’m also an investigative journalist who asks questions and wants to study facts in black and white.
Sending a FOIA request is a lawful way to get the answers you deserve as a citizen.