MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) A WMBF News investigation into salaries and expenses at public schools in Horry County has finally led to a charter school opening-up its books.
Bridgewater Academy, which gets more than $1 million of residents' tax dollars through Horry County Schools, failed to turn-over documents to WMBF News for months. On March 8, WMBF News sent a letter to Bridgewater's acting principal, Steve Wilson, requesting the documents. State law requires publicly-funded organizations to reply within 15 business days. But no one from the school responded until we let them know in late April that they were violating the law...
WMBF News informed the board they were not complying with South Carolina's Freedom of Information Act and again requested specific dollar amounts.
The board promised us they were working on it, but again after not getting the documents for weeks, we decided to show-up at one of their board meetings the night of July 20.
We asked Ms. Walters, who serves as the secretary on the board, if we could speak outside of their meeting during a break.
We pointed out that we were trying to find out how much Bridgewater spends on administrator and teacher salaries.
"And we've been slow in getting that to you because we've never been asked that question before. And we actually had to create those documents," Walters replied.
Walters mentioned that they have a small staff, which made the situation more difficult. But we pointed out that another charter school in Myrtle Beach, the Palmetto Academy of Learning and Success, had complied with the law and turned-over the information to us. They also have a small staff.
"I can't speak for them," Walters told us. "And I don't know how their staffing or their organization is. We did go through a little upheaval this year with the administrator [Craig Crawford] leaving and then temporarily filling it. And that was a challenge that maybe they didn't have to undergo."
The upheaval was still apparent at the board meeting WMBF News attended last month with teachers showing-up saying they still didn't have a contract and weren't sure where classes would be held this year...
The point throughout the WMBF News investigation has been for community members to know how schools in Horry County are spending tax payer money.
The law in South Carolina is clear. You have a right to know. All legal information can be found under the Freedom of Information Act guide: http://www.scpress.org/Documents/2011FOI.pdf
Jay Bender, an attorney in Columbia who's an expert on First Amendment cases, tells WMBF News that if Bridgewater's board members had never turned over the documents they could've been charged with a misdemeanor.
But, he says, unlike other criminal violations you can actually tell courts in South Carolina that you were unaware of the law and be found "not guilty."
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“Behind the doors of Bridgewater Academy.” WMBF News (SC), 8/10/2011