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Wise officials, attorneys setto meet over FOIA request

March 7th, 2007 6:00 am by STEPHEN IGO



WISE - Attorneys for Wise County and the Wise County School Board, the county administrator, county school superintendent and finance director for the school division will meet today to come to terms over a Freedom of Information Act request filed by a county supervisor involving details of the school system's budget.


"Why?" Supervisor John Peace II said Tuesday. "Just follow the law. It's simple."


Wise County School Superintendent Greg Killough said what Peace wants isn't quite so simple, and most probably, impossible.


Peace filed a FOIA request in January requesting the funding breakdown across the school division's eight budget categories such as administration, instruction, transportation and the like. Killough said that was provided.


Most recently, Peace filed another FOIA request seeking "specific local money and categories and administrative salary, and line item(s) again," Killough said. "Our response to him was, we don't have local monies broken out by category."


Or at least not in the specific line item venue Killough said Peace seems to want.


Of Wise County's annual $73 million budget for schools, county taxpayers provide about $15 million. Killough said Peace's demand to show where every dime of county money is applied across the budget, item by line item including individual salaries, textbook purchases or a new mop for a school janitor, poses a puzzle.


"Take as a good example the pre-K initiative. ... You have to have so much of a local match (to state dollars). You have committed (a portion of local dollars) to that portion, but if you say how much of that (local share) buys a teacher's salary or buys books, well who is to say?" Killough said.


"What (Peace) is asking for in that third item (in his FOIA request) is something, from what I'm checking on, we're meeting what the state code requires us (to give) to the county administrator. If we had the information, we would give it. When he asks, we explain the man-hours (required) to create the information. The man-hours required to do it would be phenomenal."


Peace said the school division should be able to provide a breakdown of county money into each of the eight spending categories.


"I will give you a good example," he said. "Almost everyone agrees in this county that these (six high school) buildings should have never been left in this shape. So why are the administrative costs so high compared to our neighbors? Why not take money away from administration and put it into maintenance? I'm talking Wise County money. Their own (2005) study said they were top-heavy. Why is Wise County funding this fat at the top?"


As a member of the Board of Supervisors in 2003, Peace said current School Board Chairman Barry Nelson made a motion to require the school division to provide the same local category funding details he has sought for about a year. Nelson's motion died for lack of a second.


The new Board of Supervisors including Peace, which took office in 2005, approved a resolution asking for category spending details. Peace has that item on the Board of Supervisors' agenda for Thursday, to make the resolution a law.


On Tuesday, Peace issued an "open letter" to Nelson reminding Nelson of his stand on the matter in 2003 and asking Nelson's assistance to provide him the local dollar category spending information Peace wants.


Nelson, who was meeting with Killough on Tuesday to help work out an agenda for next week's school board meeting, said he could not comment on a letter he hadn't had a chance to read.


"Transparency in government, that's all I'm asking," Peace said. "They can bombard you with details in a 2-inch (thick) budget, but you ask for details about local dollars, and that document doesn't exist. It's just like a business. If you invest a bunch of dollars, where can we cut costs and make this business cost-efficient, and that's all we're trying to do."


Killough said all spending is accounted for, if not precisely to the local penny detail to Peace's satisfaction.


"It's not like there's a big pot and we reach in for whatever we want," Killough said. "I never said it can't be done. I told him, though, it would take a lot of man-hours to do it."


Today's meeting on the issue will not include any supervisors or school board members.


Killough said he will be accompanied by school division Finance Director Ron Vicars - hopefully, since Vicars was out sick on Tuesday - and school board attorney Scott Mullins, to hammer out a resolution to Peace's request with Wise County Attorney Karen Mullins and County Administrator Glen "Skip" Skinner.


"We will try to see what we can work through and do, within reason," Killough said. "I mean, everybody is trying. We're being painted (as if we are not) being cooperative, and that's not true. We're trying. We're struggling to manage through this."


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