A school district violated the state’s Freedom of Information Act by not releasing information on the finalists for a superintendent job, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled Monday.
“FOIA must be construed so as to make it possible for citizens to learn and report fully the activities of public officials,” Justice Costa Pleicones wrote in an unanimous opinion.
The (Spartanburg) Herald-Journal sued the Spartanburg District 7 School District in 2003 after the district refused to release information on the finalists for the job.
Five semifinalists and two finalists were selected from a group of about 30 applicants. State law requires public agencies to release the names of no fewer than the final three applicants in the hiring process. The school board said it wasn’t required to release its finalists because there were only two.
The court said the school board should have released the names of the five semifinalists.
A South Carolina media advocate praised the decision.
“It’s an important decision and sends a really strong message to the school boards about releasing finalists’ names,” said Bill Rogers, executive director of the South Carolina Press Association.
Rogers also said the ruling prevents school boards from “turning up their nose at the law and just ignoring it.” He called school districts some of the worst FOI law offenders.
The school district’s attorney said the state FOI law was ambiguous.
“The school district did not intentionally set out to violate the Freedom of Information Act … or avoid disclosure in this manner,” Spartanburg attorney Carlos Johnson said.
Johnson also said the ruling may hinder some public bodies by requiring them to keep the number of job finalists in mind during the hiring process.
“I don’t think the Legislature intended to force the public body to think about a number,” Johnson said. “I think the Legislature intended for the public to have access to information regarding the most qualified applicants.”