Shining Rock refuses to discuss building project
Editor’s note: This is the eighth in a series of stories on Haywood County’s public charter school, Shining Rock Classical Academy, which has been beset by a host of academic and organizational problems since opening in 2015.
Although plans for a new facility proposed by taxpayer-funded Haywood County public charter school Shining Rock Classical Academy have been scuttled due to an unexpected decrease in revenue brought about by dramatically lower student enrollment totals for the current school year, questions about how Shining Rock’s unelected governing board got so far along in the planning process without any public mention of the project continue to linger, and the school’s not talking.
On Aug. 1, Shining Rock filed with the Town of Waynesville ambitious plans for a new school facility, which was to have been situated not far from the school’s current campus of modular buildings off Dellwood Road. Those pre-construction documents were produced by private contractors and included several separate reports, including detailed architectural plans for the building, school bus operational guidelines, a review of neighboring wetlands and a tree survey.
Document requests that were made to Shining Rock last week relating to the project’s contracts, the project’s cost and transcripts from the meetings in which the project was discussed went unacknowledged for several days.
When the requests were finally acknowledged, they were accompanied — for the very first time — by a statement that said they would be addressed “upon payment of any fees as may be prescribed by law.”
SMN requested a copy of Shining Rock’s document production policy as well as its fee schedule, but like the public records request itself, that request also went unfulfilled.
Although it almost never actually happens, public bodies may charge reasonable fees for the production of public documents according to state statute, but there are a host of caveats designed to prevent public bodies from blocking the release of documents by charging fees, onerous or otherwise.
First, per North Carolina General Statute 132-6.2(a), “Except as otherwise provided by law, no public agency shall charge a fee for an uncertified copy of a public record that exceeds the actual cost to the public agency of making the copy.”
The same statute goes on to define actual costs as being “limited to direct, chargeable costs related to the reproduction of a public record as determined by generally accepted accounting principles and does not include costs that would have been incurred by the public agency if a request to reproduce a public record had not been made.”
As UNC School of Government professor and open government authority Frayda Bluestein writes in respected government blog Coates’ Canons, there are only a few things public bodies can charge for, including postage, paper or external media like flash drives and compact discs.
“There is probably nothing that can be charged for providing electronic records by email,” writes Bluestein. “There is no authority to charge anything when the request is to inspect (rather than receive copies of) public records.”
There’s also no authority in statute that allows a charge for staff time spent in analyzing public records requests, searching for the public records, or redacting confidential information when it’s necessary.
“Since employees are already on the payroll, the time they spend responding to public records requests is an existing cost and is not attributable to the existence of the request,” Bluestein writes. “The only authority in the current law to charge for labor is in the case of a request that requires ‘extensive use of information technology resources or extensive clerical or supervisory assistance by personnel of the agency.’”
Those are usually large database requests. The records requested by SMN are meeting minutes and contracts that are probably already in an electronic format, so it’s not clear why Shining Rock is withholding them until supposed “fees” — which still haven’t been disclosed to SMN — are paid, since public bodies can’t charge for sending an email with a contract or document attached to it anyway.
The records are being sought by SMN as well as The Mountaineer newspaper in an effort to ensure that there were no improprieties with the expenditure of taxpayer money in the surprise project.
Such expenditures remain presumed — in part, because Shining Rock hasn’t provided any records of any transactions.
Expenditures are also “presumed” because large-scale architectural drawings and reports like those created by private contractors engaged for the project don’t usually come free, or even cheap.
Blair Bishop, of Bishop Forestry and Land PLLC, performed the tree protection and replacement report for Shining Rock’s 15.9-acre project, chronicling 58 distinct samples by species and size.
He declined to discuss contractual specifics or even rough costs of such an endeavor, but did say that he never agreed to do it for free and hasn’t yet been paid for his work.
“We had certainty our services would be paid for,” said Bishop. “We look forward to getting paid for our services.”
Whatever the cost of the project to date, including the $750 application fee to Waynesville’s Development Services Department, those expenditures are, for now, for naught — on Aug. 5, Shining Rock’s board moved to “suspend” any further discussions on new facilities, just four days after the plans were submitted.
That suspension came the same day — the first day of school — during which Shining Rock board members learned enrollment totals were down dramatically, on the order of 20 percent over last year.
At roughly $7,700 per student in taxpayer funding, Shining Rock is now looking at an unexpected revenue deficiency in the neighborhood of half a million dollars for its recently passed $3.2 million 2019-20 budget.
Shining Rock’s academic scores have declined each year since the school was established in 2015 and are currently the lowest in Haywood County, and slightly below the statewide average score as well.
Interview requests sent last week to Shining Rock’s Board Chair Michelle Haynes and Head of School Joshua Morgan — its third head in four years — went unanswered, as did previous questions about the justification behind spending taxpayer money on an expansion project four days before enrollment totals would have proven it unaffordable.