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.
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.”
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.”