School district acknowledges FOIA violations

Action by the Milford School District to increase school tax rates in 2016 violated the Freedom of Information Act, according to a July 7 ruling by the state attorney general’s office.

However, Deputy Attorney General Michelle F. Whalen’s decision leaves the tax increase in place.

District residents will have to take their case to court if they want to overturn the tax hike, Whalen said.

The deputy attorney general was responding to a Feb. 5 petition filed by the Coalition Against the Milford School Tax, co-founded by Milford’s Gloria Markowitz.

In it, the coalition argued the public was not given sufficient notice in June 2016 that the school board’s Citizens Budget Oversight Committee would be discussing a tax rate increase June 14 or that the board itself would vote on the matter a week later.

However, the attorney general’s office could not undo the tax increases, Whalen wrote.

“This office does not have the statutory authority to invalidate the CBOC or board’s actions,” she wrote concluding the letter. “While this office will take no further action to invalidate the board’s June 20, 2016, vote, we wish to remind you that you retain an absolute right to file suit.”

According to the ruling, the CBOC’s agenda for June 14, 2016, did include a notification that the panel would discuss the tax rate. However, the school district could not prove the agenda had been posted in time and at a place to give the public notice of the meeting.

Although members of the CBOC did say the actual tax increase proposal would be decided at the school board’s June 20, 2016, meeting, there was no notice of that fact on the meeting’s agenda.

The agenda was amended the same afternoon as the meeting to include that item, however, the attorney general’s office ruled the amendment was not published in a timely enough manner to let the public know about the vote.

“Without adequate disclosure, members of the public are unable to make informed decisions as to whether (or not) to attend particular public meetings to observe and monitor a public body’s performance on matters of interest to them,” Whalen wrote, citing a prior decision.

“We find it difficult to conceive of a matter of greater interest to a group of citizens than a proposal which, if approved, would result in an increased tax burden on those citizens,” Whalen added.

The deputy attorney general also noted it did not have the authority to overturn the board’s June 20 vote, to stop the school district from continuing to collect the taxes or to force the district to return the tax money to district residents.

Instead, Whalen noted such requests should be entertained at the Delaware Court of Chancery.

The deputy attorney general took no other remediation action other than to recommend CBOC and school board members undergo remedial Freedom of Information Act training.

District Superintendent Kevin Dickerson said the district takes responsibility for the violation.

“We acknowledge that we violated FOIA in the posting of our agenda for the June 20, 2016, regular board meeting,” Dickerson wrote. The violation, as laid out in the original complaint, was “an internal mistake,” he added.

“It was never our intent to violate FOIA. Since then, we have worked to improve our processes relative to FOIA regulations and continue to do so.

“In regards to the FOIA violation referenced for the June 2016 CBOC meeting, we strongly feel we were in compliance with FOIA through all activities associated with this meeting," he said.

“We take the attorney general’s opinion very seriously and plan to continue taking appropriate steps, including FOIA training, to ensure transparency for our community.”

Markowitz said her group realizes they have only a partial victory in that they want the tax increases rolled back. The next step may be the Delaware Court of Chancery.

“We will be meeting with a small committee to discuss the next steps,” she said. The group is seeking an attorney to take their case, Markowitz added.

“The crux of this was to call attention to the violation the school board had perpetrated and to let everyone know what we want,” she said. “People in the Milford School District need to know.”

This story has been amended to include the statement by School District Superintendent Kevin Dickerson.