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Debate continues over FOIA response

By Alex Bridges

WOODSTOCK - Shenandoah County leaders clashed again this week over one supervisor's request for information from the school system.

School Board Chairman Richard L. Koontz Jr. spoke to the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday about how the division handles information requests. Koontz's remarks came in response to District 4 Supervisor Cindy Bailey's request for school employee salary data. Bailey has protested the estimated cost for her request and claims it shouldn't take 14 hours of staff time to produce the information.

Koontz defended the school system's responses to such requests and pointed out that the division receives many queries during the budget season, several submitted this week, handled under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.

"They're being handled and they're being handled quickly, I think," Koontz said. "Our boards have worked together so well and I didn't want there to be any misunderstanding there between our boards or the community on how we handle requests for information."

Koontz said his board has a policy it uses when members ask for information. A consensus of the School Board must support one member's request for information in order for that request to go through. Otherwise the board does not pursue the request, Koontz explained.

Bailey said it appeared the School Board has two policies -- written and verbal -- when it comes to responding to supervisors' requests for information.

"It's not a question, in my mind, of your policy through FOIA -- never was," Bailey said. "The question, as a board member whose job it is to look at everything in the budget -- everything -- and then decide where the tax money goes. That's the way I look at it."

Bailey claims supervisors and the School Board came up with a verbal agreement a few years ago for dealing with information requests. If a supervisor wanted detailed information from the school system, the School Board would take up the request. If the School Board accepted the request, its chairman would go to his counterpart on the Board of Supervisors and agree to the request.

Supervisors Chairman David Ferguson said he had been "accused of making an agreement" with Koontz.

"The first three times I did respond -- there is no agreement," Ferguson said. "I have made no agreement on behalf of the board."

Koontz said he called Ferguson to talk about the policy between the boards. Ferguson said that during the call he noted that he understood the School Board's policy.

"But at no time did I give any indication that I spoke for the board or that there was a position from the board on this," Ferguson said.

Bailey said she has looked at the software used by the school division and claims it shouldn't take as long as staff has estimated nor should it cost several hundreds of dollars to fulfill the request.

"I've been told that I am now labeled as an enemy of the school system and if I need to be the bad guy and say 'no, we can't afford this or that,' I'm happy to be that," Bailey said. "But that's all this is about -- looking at everything -- and I am more convinced now than ever that even the School Board has not looked at every detail of the budget because no one's ever asked for these details before."

Bailey said she wants to go with a volunteer certified public accountant and look at the software system used by the school division.

"I appreciate you coming here tonight but I'm not sure what you hoped to accomplish because it didn't help me a bit," Bailey said.

"I honestly didn't come here to address any particular person," Koontz responded.

Koontz reiterated his comments about the school division receiving information requests, adding that newspapers have asked for similar data recently and in the past and paid the fee each time. Koontz said the school division has fulfilled Bailey's other more recent request for information.

Bailey said Wednesday the information she had requested was a copy of the service agreement between the division and Charterhouse School, the entity using the Edinburg School to educate some children with special needs.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com

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