Posted June 27, 2016
Rights & Responsibilities:
The Rights of Requesters and the Responsibilities of Chesterfield County Public Schools under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act
The Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), located § 2.2-3700 et seq. of the Code of Virginia, guarantees citizens of the Commonwealth and representatives of the media access to public records held by public bodies, public officials, and public employees.
A public record is any writing or recording – regardless of whether it is a paper record, an electronic file, an audio or video recording, or any other format – that is prepared or owned by, or in the possession of a public body or its officers, employees or agents in the transaction of public business. All public records are presumed to be open, and may only be withheld if a specific, statutory exemption applies.
The policy of FOIA states that the purpose of FOIA is to promote an increased awareness by all persons of governmental activities. In furthering this policy, FOIA requires that the law be interpreted liberally, in favor of access, and that any exemption allowing public records to be withheld must be interpreted narrowly.
A Citizen’s FOIA Rights
- A citizen of the Commonwealth has the right to request to inspect or receive copies of public records, or both.
- A citizen of the Commonwealth has the right to request that any charges for the requested records be estimated in advance.
- If a citizen of the Commonwealth believes that his/her FOIA rights have been violated, the resident may file a petition in district or circuit court to compel compliance with FOIA. Alternatively, a resident may contact the FOIA Advisory Council for a nonbinding advisory opinion.
Making a Request for records from Chesterfield County Public Schools
- A citizen of the Commonwealth may request records by U.S. Mail, fax, e-mail, in person, or over the phone. FOIA does not require that a request be in writing, nor does a resident need to specifically state that he/she is requesting records under FOIA.
- From a practical perspective, it may be helpful to both the resident and the school division employee receiving the request to put the request in writing. This allows the resident to create a record of the request. It also gives the school division a clear statement of what records are being requested, so that there is no misunderstanding over a verbal request. However, the school division cannot refuse to respond to a FOIA request if a resident elects not to put his/her request in writing.
- A request must identify the records being sought with “reasonable specificity.” It does not refer to or limit the volume or number of records being requested; instead, it requires that the requester be specific enough so that the school division can identify and locate the records that are requested.
- A request must ask for existing records or documents. FOIA gives a resident the right to inspect or copy records; it does not apply to a situation where a resident is asking general questions about the work of Chesterfield County Public Schools, nor does it require Chesterfield County Public Schools to create a record that does not exist.
- A citizen of the Commonwealth may choose to receive electronic records in any format used by Chesterfield County Public Schools in the regular course of business.
- For example, if a resident requests records maintained in an Excel database, the resident may elect to receive those records electronically, via e-mail or on a computer disk, or to receive a printed copy of those records
- If the school division has questions about a resident’s request, please cooperate with staff’s efforts to clarify the type of records that are being sought, or to attempt to reach a reasonable agreement about a response to a large request.
Per School Board policy, the School Board Attorney’s Office is tasked with responding to FOIA requests and other requests for information. To request records from Chesterfield County Public Schools a resident should direct his/her request to
School Board Attorney
P.O. Box 10
Chesterfield, VA 23832
In addition, the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council is available to answer questions a resident may have about FOIA. The Advisory Council may be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone at 804-225-3056 or 1-866-448-4100.
Chesterfield County Public Schools Responsibilities in Responding to a Request
- Chesterfield County Public Schools must respond to a resident’s request within five working days of receiving it. “Day One” is considered the day after the request is received. The five-day response period does not include weekends or holidays.
- The reason behind a resident’s request for public records from Chesterfield County Public Schools is irrelevant, and a resident does not have to state why he/she wants the records before the school division responds to a request. FOIA does, however, allow Chesterfield County Public Schools to require a requester to provide his/her legal name and legal address.
- FOIA requires that Chesterfield County Public Schools make one of the following responses to a request within the five-day time period:
- The school division provides the records in their entirety.
- The school division withholds all of the records that have been requested, because all of the records are subject to a specific statutory exemption. If all of the records are being withheld, the school division must send a response in writing. That writing must identify the volume and subject matter of the records being withheld, and state the specific section of the Code of Virginia that allows the school division to withhold the records.
- The school division provides some of the records that have been requested, but withhold other records. The school division cannot withhold an entire record if only a portion of it is subject to an exemption. In that instance, the school division may redact the portion of the record that may be withheld, and must provide the requester with the remainder of the record. The school division must provide a resident with a written response stating the specific section of the Code of Virginia that allows portions of the requested records to be withheld.
- The school division informs the requester in writing that the requested records cannot be found or do not exist. However, if the school division knows that another public body has the requested records, the school division must include contact information for the other public body in its response.
- If it is practically impossible for Chesterfield County Public Schools to respond to a request within the five-day period, the school division must state this in writing, explaining the conditions that make the response impossible. This will allow the school division seven additional working days to respond to a request, giving the school division a total of 12 working days to respond to a request.
- If a resident makes a request for a very large number of records, and the school division believes it cannot provide the records within 12 working days without disrupting other organizational responsibilities, the school division may petition the court for additional time to respond. However, FOIA requires that the school division make a reasonable effort to reach an agreement concerning the production or the records before the school division goes to court to ask for more time.
- A public body may make reasonable charges not to exceed its actual cost incurred in accessing, duplicating, supplying, or searching for the requested records. No public body shall impose any extraneous, intermediary, or surplus fees or expenses to recoup the general costs associated with creating or maintaining records or transacting the general business of the public body. Any duplicating fee charged by a public body shall not exceed the actual cost of duplication. All charges for the supplying of requested records shall be estimated in advance at the request of the citizen as set forth in subsection F of § 2.2-3704 of the Code of Virginia.
- A resident may have to pay for the records that are requested from Chesterfield County Public Schools. FOIA allows the school division to charge for the actual costs of responding to FOIA requests. This would include items like staff time spent searching for the requested records, redacting records, copying costs, or any other costs directly related to supplying the requested records. It cannot include general overhead costs.
- If the school division estimates that it will cost more than $200 to respond to a request, the school division may require a resident to pay a deposit, not to exceed the amount of the estimate, before proceeding with a The five days that the school division has to respond to a request does not include the time between when it asks for a deposit and when the requester responds.
- A resident may request that the school division estimate in advance the charges for supplying the records that have been requested. This allows a resident to know about any costs upfront, and provides a resident the opportunity to modify his/her request in an attempt to lower the estimated costs.
- If a resident owes the school division money from a previous FOIA request that has remained unpaid for more than 30 days, Chesterfield County Public Schools may require payment of the past-due bill before it will respond to a new FOIA request.
Types of records
The following is a general description of records held by Chesterfield County Public Schools. This list is not necessarily meant to be inclusive of all records in the school division’s possession.
- Personnel records concerning employees and officials of Chesterfield County Public Schools
- Scholastic records, which contain student-specific information that is generally exempt under law
- Business and finance records
- Operational records involving instructional efforts
- Operational records involving support departments such as Technology, Transportation, Facilities, Food Services, etc.
- Agendas, agenda items, minutes and other records of the meetings of the School Board and other committees appointed by the School Board
Commonly used exemptions
The Code of Virginia allows any public body to withhold certain records from public disclosure. Chesterfield County Public Schools commonly withholds records subject to the following exemptions:
- Personnel records ( 2.2-3705.1 (1) of the Code of Virginia)
- Records subject to attorney-client privilege (§ 2.2-3705.1 (2)) or attorney work product (§ 2.2-3705.1 (3))
- Vendor proprietary information (§ 2.2-3705.1 (6))
- Records related to the potential purchase of property (§ 2.2-3705.1 (8))
- Records relating to the negotiation and award of a contract, prior to a contract being awarded (§ 2.2-3705.1 (12))
- Records related to critical incident response (§ 2.2-3705.2 (4)) and (§ 2.2-3705.2 (6))
Policy regarding the use of exemptions
Since exemptions exist in order to protect some compelling public interest, it is inevitable that the school division will need to rely on exemptions in many cases. For that reason, it is the school division’s practice to invoke all exemptions that are applicable to any request for records. This practice ensures that all citizens are treated the same way, to the greatest extent possible.
- The general practice of Chesterfield County Public Schools is to invoke the personnel records exemption in those instances where it applies in order to protect the privacy of employees and officials of Chesterfield County Public Schools.
- The general practice of Chesterfield County Public Schools is to invoke the student scholastic exemption in those instances where it applies in order to protect the privacy of students of Chesterfield County Public Schools.