Let the sun shine

Published 1:10 pm Wednesday, March 7, 2007

By Staff
The Beaufort County Board of Education had its first budget-preparation meeting of the year Feb. 20, and the Daily News reporter who covered it came away without a copy of the numbers.
Two weeks later, he still didn’t have one. That’s because Beaufort County Schools wouldn’t release it.
That’s outrageous. Any document that is handed out to board members during an open, public meeting is a public record. And the public — media member or not — has a right to that information.
At the school board’s budget meeting on Thursday, Superintendent Jeff Moss told the reporter the budget, a combination of principals’ wish lists, represented “working numbers.” The school board still has to hash out its wants and needs for the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1. But it doesn’t matter that those numbers aren’t yet set in stone.
A glance at North Carolina’s public-records law makes that clear. “Public record … shall mean all documents, papers, letters, maps, books, photographs, films, sound recordings … or other documentary material, regardless of physical form or characteristics,” reads a portion of the law.
The word “all” in that sentence doesn’t seem to allow for a whole lot of loopholes. And the law makes no provision for “working numbers” to be kept secret.
The next portion of the law defines what makes those materials “public.” The records must be “made or received … in connection with the transaction of public business by any agency of North Carolina government or its subdivisions. “
Last time we checked, that umbrella was big enough to cover public schools. And how those schools spend money — your money — on your children certainly constitutes public business.
The Daily News has repeatedly tried to obtain hard copies of the numbers that have been discussed in the three budget workshops. Each time, there has been some holdup and we’ve been patient. School board member F. Mac Hodges and Chairman Robert Belcher have tried to help our reporter get the information he needs. But the budget remained elusive.
Sarah Hodges, the school system’s information officer, said Tuesday she would put in a request for the budget, but that it wouldn’t be available before today because Moss was out of town.
Amanda Martin, an attorney who works with the North Carolina Press Association, termed withholding those budget-related documents a clear violation of the state’s public-records law.
It wasn’t until we advised Moss of Martin’s legal opinion that those budgetary numbers became available to us late Tuesday. Moss said he didn’t realize the Daily News had been seeking the documents. Reached on his cell phone, Moss e-mailed the documents he had within a matter of minutes.
We were glad to receive the numbers, but we shouldn’t have had to wait around for two weeks and seek the advice of a lawyer to get them. Somebody, somewhere, dropped the ball.
During budget season, it is our job to report on the financial plans local boards are considering, even before the numbers are final and everybody says amen. Sometimes, those numbers fluctuate wildly from what is first presented to what is finally adopted.
Still, that doesn’t make “working numbers” discussed in a public meeting any less valid or any less public. Other public bodies aren’t above the law — and neither is the Beaufort County Board of Education.