Court rules against Spartanburg school district in FOIA case

SPARTANBURG -- School districts and municipalities must publicly release more names of candidates for public jobs, the state's top court said Monday.

The S.C. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Spartanburg School District 7 violated the state Freedom of Information Act in 2003 when it refused to identify five semifinalists for its superintendent's position.

The district contended state law required it to identify only two finalists. But the high court disagreed, upholding a lower court ruling.

"The statutory language ... requires the public body to disclose the final pool of applicants comprised of at least three people," Justice Costa Pleicones wrote for the court. "We do not agree with (the school district) that only those applicants deemed by the agency to be 'finalists' are subject to disclosure."

Some Midlands school districts and municipalities in recent years have adopted the Spartanburg County school district's interpretation of the statute, over protests by The State newspaper.

In 2005, for example, the Richland 1 school board narrowed its superintendent search from 52 candidates to five and conducted closed-door interviews over several weeks before publicly announcing two finalists. One finalist, then-Las Vegas administrator Allen Coles, got the job.

Last year, Lexington County Council discussed five candidates for county administrator behind closed doors but publicly revealed only three, including Katherine (Doucett) Hubbard, who eventually was hired.

Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association, said Monday's ruling "sends a message to school boards and governing bodies of all municipalities across the state about releasing the names of all final candidates."

"It keeps them from playing games," Rogers said. "It's important for (the public) to know who is under final consideration so they can have input on it."

The ruling stemmed from a lawsuit brought by The Spartanburg Herald-Journal newspaper.

Scott Price, the lawyer for the S.C. School Boards Association, said Monday his organization will be "analyzing (the ruling) and making recommendations to school boards based on how the Supreme Court interpreted the law."

"It's a little bit troubling to me we're now basically intervening in the process that local government uses to make hiring decisions," he said.

Carlos Johnson, an attorney for the Spartanburg School District 7, said the ruling could discourage candidates from applying for future public jobs.

"If you're disgruntled in your current employment and you don't see your situation improving, or even worsening by the knowledge you're looking, then you wouldn't want to be disclosed," he said. "It could affect (local governments') duties in selecting qualified people."

Johnson said he believes the Legislature next year should consider amending the law, which he described as "ambiguous."

In its ruling, the Supreme Court also upheld Circuit Judge Roger Couch's earlier order awarding attorney fees and costs to the Spartanburg newspaper.