HomeNewsEducationColumbia County School District deals with influx of open records requests

Columbia County School District deals with influx of open records requests

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The following article has been updated with further clarification regarding the Georgia Open Records Act in relation to the events described.

Eric Feldkamp was escorted out of the Jan. 11 meeting of the Columbia County Board of Education after an outburst in which he accused the school district and Superintendent Steven Flynt of not being transparent and violating open records requests.

“I have twice had to point out that the school district is in misdemeanor violation of open records law in order for them to move forward,” said Feldkamp before the board as he was ushered out by campus police. “He’s absolutely lying to you, about more than just that.”

Feldkamp was ousted because he had interrupted Flynt during his superintendent report. Flynt had been addressing the board regarding a large influx of open records requests the administration had received. Flynt said that the school district received more than 60 requests from “less than five individuals,” in correspondences that produced more than 10,000 emails.

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Flynt said he acknowledges the seriousness of the open records requests. The Georgia Open Records Act requires that agencies make requested public records available, or, if the records are unavailable, respond with a description of the records and a timeline for when they will be available, within three business days. The law also allows the agency to “impose a reasonable charge for the search, retrieval, redaction, and production or copying costs for the production of records” requested.

“There’s a very clear law around open records requests, and we have no reason to think we’re not going to be able to comply with it,” he said. “But in some cases, it took a little bit longer because you have to not only pull the items, find out how much it is but then estimate the cost and then share that with the individuals that were requested.”

The high number of documents associated the requests has proven challenging, with staff poring through more than 5,000 email addresses and countless pages of information to discern relevant phrases and content.

“While again, we want to be transparent, the sheer volume of those documents is extremely large,” said Flynt. “If we’re searching all the emails, and all the attachments that went with that, not only are we going to get a large amount of information, but we’re going to have to do a lot of redactions from that because there will be personally identifiable information in that.”

Feldkamp was one of the individuals who recently submitted open records requests to the school district. On Dec. 22, 2021, Feldkamp asked for several records and documents in an email addressed to members of the school board and district staff.

The email requested all records and documents regarding three phrases: social-emotional learning, which is an educational practice; positive behavioral intervention; and diversity, equity and inclusion.

The inquiry asked for 2021 meeting minutes, calendars and agendas for committees responsible for setting up or recommending practices related to or including these three items; as well as “Communications with third parties for the purposes of obtaining consultation services or appearances at meetings, professional development or conferences for or related to” the three topics.

The district responded the following day, telling Feldkamp that the documents requested would be available on Jan. 4, after district personnel returned from winter break. On Jan. 4, administrative staff told Feldkamp that his request contained over 400,000 items.

Feldkamp, in his response, said that a previous request had also returned an exceedingly large amount of information on the initial search, but that “it was quickly determined” that the search was not conducted according to his request, and that one term was searched was resulted in a large share of irrelevant results. 

“The district’s go-to tactic has been to repeatedly conduct overly broad searches for documents far beyond what was requested,” said Feldkamp in an email addressed to the school board on Jan. 11 and blind-copied to The Augusta Press. “The costs and difficulties Flynt is publicly assigning to us are the direct result of the district’s handling of the requests, not from some implied abuse of the process on our part.”

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The overarching concern in these high volumes of requests, including Feldkamp’s, are the application of concepts related to critical race theory in school curriculums, as well as the appropriateness of materials in school libraries. Both have been persistent issues raised in Columbia County school board meetings over the last several months.

Flynt says he understands the concerns of parents and has reiterated the district’s commitment to following the lead of the State Board of Education regarding critical race theory. The challenge in engaging the issues raised by parents, he says, is when individuals associate other ideas with critical race theory.

“If you if you just read the theory in itself, there are five components to critical race theory,” said Flynt. “If you take it another step, what we’re hearing from some of the concerned individuals is something called tenets to CRT, which is not very clearly defined.”

Feldkamp, in a letter to The Augusta Press emailed on Jan. 25, accuses the Columbia County School District of surreptitiously including or allowing elements of critical race theory in school curriculum.      

“We acknowledge it is not specifically in the standards,” said Feldkamp. “But we are looking for it in the methods, lessons, teacher training and other ways that it can enter the classroom.”

The Georgia Board of Education passed a resolution on June 3, 2021 restricting classroom discussions on race. State School Superintendent Richard Woods has said that Georgia “will not be adopting CRT standards nor applying for or accept any funding that requires the adoption of these concepts.” But there are several Columbia County parents, like Feldkamp, who feel that the ideas are still making their way into the classroom.

“I came to the issue by deciding it was best to look for myself, beginning with requesting a broad sample of emails from within the district related to specific critical theory buzzwords,” said Feldkamp. “A small sample will not do the seriousness of the issue justice. The district has sought out the services of anti-racist (a friendly rebranding of what we used to call reverse discrimination but is really just plain racism with an added element of social shaming for those that won’t go along) consultants for teacher training.”

Flynt believes that making such links can be risky, especially consider that some of the work done by counselors and social workers, or in wraparound services, or programs designed to help support students and their families.

“I do think it’s unfair to just link anything that you may disagree with to this concept of critical race theory,” said Flynt. “We need to watch that very carefully, because there are requirements on one hand, but there are also needs that our students deserve access to in schools. And so all of these were kind of hearing I think stem more from what people believe are connected to CRT but not exactly the components that may be in the actual theory.”

Skyler Q. Andrews is a staff reporter covering business and community news with The Augusta Press. Reach him at [email protected].

6 COMMENTS

  1. As obnoxious and distracting as these requests may be, they sign that citizens are keeping the vigil. Given the volume of violations of the public trust in all levels of government and our institutions, these requests are warranted. The school system should embrace this opportunity to secure the trust of those it serves and not see this as a threat. CRT is deadly to the quest for what is true, good and beautiful. I understand, having served our community as a teacher during a long satisfying career.

  2. I can’t speak to the other requests submitted, but I’ve made 3, and am still waiting for a single item from the last one. Before submitting any, I asked the school board and superintendent to be the sheepdogs for us because it’s difficult and expensive if we have to go looking ourselves. They made it clear that they would not (though Kristi Baker – district 2 – has been openly receptive to discussing the issue deeper). Now they’re crying victim. I’ve been generously patient in trying to get records that I’ve requested but the district’s response has been poor. Insisting that a request for a committee’s calendar, agenda and recommendations includes 400,000 documents that someone would have to review at an also absurd cost of $100 per hour is clearly not an effort to be transparent.

    I do want to clarify that most of what I’ve found has come from prior to Dr. Flynt taking over the district and I am not wanting to hold him accountable for things he wasn’t part of. My concern isn’t that he’s necessarily intending to include CRT (Yes it’s a specific narrow thing and also a buzzword for more.), that’s the writers characterization. I am concerned that individual teachers and administrators that have a lot of leeway may be introducing it and I’ve seen clear indicators of that, especially in teacher trainings conducted over the last year.

    • The full letter mentioned in the article:

      At the January 11th meeting of the Columbia County Board of Education, the board and Superintendent engaged in a prearranged back and forth to publicly reassert their claims, in the face of parent questions, that Critical Race Theory is not present in our school district’s curriculum standards. The district’s response dodges the question some of us have been asking. We acknowledge it is not specifically in the standards, but are looking for it in the methods, lessons, teacher training and other ways that it can enter the classroom. The claim, in the most charitable light, relies on an exceptionally narrow interpretation of what we mean when we ask about Critical Race Theory to avoid a direct and transparent response. At worst it’s an outright lie and intentional public gaslighting by the superintendent coordinated with our elected representatives.
      The superintendent specifically claimed that us parents are only looking at this through a national lens and not what’s happening in the district. To the contrary, I came to the issue by deciding it was best to look for myself, beginning with requesting a broad sample of emails from within the district related to specific critical theory buzzwords. That open records request, unfortunately, bore some fruit. And the more we look, the more we find hallmarks of the racialization of education and critical theory in practice.
      In the most generous sense, the superintendent is correct that the school curriculum standards don’t include the teaching of the legal concept of critical race theory. The truth however is that while it began (and continues) as law school teaching, the theory escaped law school in the 70s and, as critical pedagogist Henry Giroux wrote, “quickly found a more natural home in colleges of education.” Giroux set and accomplished a goal of getting 100 critical pedagogists into tenured positions in colleges of education around the country, planting the seeds of critical theories in public education we’re dealing with today.
      As with other critical theories derived from marxist and postmodernist thought, CRT requires that the theory be put into practice (a twist on the biblical standard that “faith without works is dead”). In education that includes methodologies that focus on dialogic teaching, self-reflection, social and collective activism and oppressor-oppressed world views. Those practices, and I can point to specific instances of them in internal CCSD communications, have become pervasive throughout the field of education in America. More specifically, and per the emails, pdfs and slide shows I’ve looked at, are at least accepted as standard practice, if not openly advocated for, here in Columbia County.
      The public should be aware that there are many small dots to connect just in the last year. A small sample will not do the seriousness of the issue justice but I ask that a few in this space be considered. The district has sought out the services of anti-racist (a friendly rebranding of what we used to call reverse discrimination, but is really just plain racism with an added elemnent of social shaming for those that won’t go along) consultants for teacher training (Ken Shelton, Peach State Summit 2021). Teachers have had implicit bias testing incorporated into professional learning while being encouraged to “assess their privilege” (North Harlem Elementary). A middle school assistant principal presented training to the district on teaching methodologies that cited the author of “Critical Race Theory in Education,” Gloria Ladson-Billings as “a good place to start.” (Columbia Middle School). A speaker welcomed incoming freshmen at each Columbia County High School by telling them that “whatever happened to them at home, they deserved better” and “high school was now their new home.” Other documents call for racial equity and include books by CRT activists like Ibram X. Kendi as “diverse children’s lit” for elementary aged students.
      To be fair to the superintendent most of this comes from the period of his predecessor, but rather than acknowledging it he has sought to dismiss the concerns and disparage district parents. Worse, the superintendent has defended some of these, but the responses don’t add up (including publicly claiming that Ken Shelton did not present on a topic that was in the title of his presentation). Under his leadership, the district has further failed, in contrast again to the superintendent’s public statements, to be transparent and responsive to open records requests on the subjects.
      While there is a lot of good happening in the schools, the public should not be confident that our leaders in the district are effectively protecting our children from ideologies and practices that place social activism in the service of seeking a utopian transformation of America above rigorous academic learning. With the exception of Kristi Baker (2d district) the school board has shown little interest in informing itself on applications and practices of critical theory to fairly represent the parents and students of the district. Since they will not, I encourage the parents of the district to better inform themselves on Critical Theories and Critical Pedagogies and become activists for the quality of their children’s education.
      We must seek accountable leaders that are willing to fight battles to prevent the further decline of our local schools into vehicles for programming activists and robbing our children of their personal agency for their future.

  3. SMH. Two word for Eric Feldkamp, Reality Winner. Your profession, and while under your watch allowed classified information to disclosed to the media. You have the nerve to attack public education You should be ashamed

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