Freedom of Information Act Procedures

Freedom of Information Act Procedures 
for Suffolk Public Schools

The Virginia Freedom of Information Act, § 2.2-3700 through § 2.2-3714 of the Code of Virginia, was established in order to make government entities throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia more open to the public. The Virginia Freedom of Information Act, § 2.2-3700 through § 2.2-3714 of the Code of Virginia,  is the primary state law governing citizen access to public records and entry to meetings of public bodies. The Virginia FOIA Law guarantees citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia and representatives of the media access to public records held by public bodies, public officials, and public employees. By law, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requires a response to requests within five working days.

Suffolk Public Schools and FOIA

All employees of Suffolk Public Schools have a responsibility to comply with FOIA. For the purpose of this document, an employee is defined as an individual who is employed on a full-time, part-time, or temporary basis, in any position with Suffolk Public Schools. The school division’s Public Information Office coordinates responses to FOIA requests from the general public and media. Requests for public records, whether made verbally or in writing, or by any other means, should always be treated as formal requests. The requestor does not have to use the word “FOIA” when making a request. All requests for public records are FOIA requests and employees should respond immediately by forwarding the request to the Public Information Office. A response must be provided within five (5) working days from the time the request is received.

Your FOIA Rights

  • You have the right to request to inspect or receive copies of public records or both.
  • You have the right to request that any charges for the requested records be estimated in advance. 
  • If you believe that your FOIA rights have been violated, you may file a petition in District or Circuit Court to compel compliance with FOIA.

The Virginia Freedom of Information Act requires that public records be made available to citizens and the media for copying and/or inspection. FOIA refers to records that are in existence and does not require that Suffolk Public Schools create records. Suffolk Public Schools may abstract and summarize records, by agreement with the requestor.

A Public Record

A public record is a writing or recording, regardless of whether it is a paper record, an electronic file, an audio or video recording, or in any other format that is owned or prepared 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. 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.

FOIA requests may be submitted by mail, email, telephone, in person (walk-in), and by any other means. FOIA requests do not need to include the word “FOIA”, but all requests must include the name and address of the requestor and the request must be reasonably specific. The day after FOIA Officer receives the request is considered the first day of the maximum five-working-day response period.   

A requestor may choose to receive electronic records in the same format in which Suffolk Public Schools creates and maintains them in the regular course of business. For example, if the school divisions maintains a particular record in an Excel database, you may request to receive the record electronically by email, on a computer disk, or you may request to receive a paper copy.

Responses to FOIA Requests

Virginia FOIA outlines the five possible responses to a FOIA request. If a request is being denied, or records are not being provided according to the request, Suffolk Public Schools must respond in writing.

  • The requested records are being provided and are enclosed. 
  • The requested records are being provided in part and withheld in part because the release of part of the record is prohibited by law. The law must be properly cited in the response and include the Virginia Code Section exemption. 
  • It is not practically possible to produce the records within five working days and we will need to invoke an extension. – An extension notification must be made in writing. This extension must be made within the five day response time-frame, and will add an additional seven working days to the response time, totaling 12 working days.
  • The requested records are being entirely withheld because their release is prohibited by law or Suffolk Public Schools has exercised its discretion to withhold the records in accordance with FOIA. The law must be properly cited in the response and include the Virginia Code Section exemption. 
  • The requested records could not be found or do not exist.

Charges

FOIA makes provisions for local government agencies to charge for requested records, yet charging for records is not mandatory. Suffolk Public Schools makes reasonable charges for the actual costs incurred in accessing, duplicating, supplying, or searching for requested records. Charges must be fair and may not include extraneous or surplus fees unrelated to the production of the records. It is the goal of Suffolk Public Schools to keep production costs as low as possible. 

Citizens and members of the media may request an estimate of the cost of supplying the requested records in advance of the staff searching for and duplicating the records.  

Suffolk Public Schools charges for the following:
- Labor — Suffolk Public Schools can charge for staff time used to search for and duplicate records. The rate will reflect the hourly wage of each employee who has the skills needed to research and prepare the records for release.
- Copies — FOIA allows that copying charges be incurred by the requestor. Suffolk Public Schools charges 25 cents per page of copied documents.
- Postage — FOIA allows that postage charges be incurred by the requestor. If estimate is over $200 — An estimate of charges will be explained to the requestor prior to staff starting the FOIA request response.

If it is estimated that the cost to produce documents will exceed $200, Suffolk Public Schools will request a deposit prior to performing the work. The deposit will be applied to the total bill upon completion of the FOIA request. If remaining balance is not paid in 30 days, the requestor will be notified that new FOIA requests will not be processed until payment in full has been received. 

Virginia FOIA Code section §2.2-3704 (I) provides that, before processing a request for records, a public body may require the requester to pay any amounts owed to the public body for previous requests for records that remain unpaid 30 days or more after billing.


FOIA Resources

Suffolk Public Schools requests advisory opinions, guidelines, training, and educational material from the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council.

The Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council is a state agency, with the expertise to help resolve disputes of Freedom of Information Act Issues. The FOIA Council answers questions from private citizens, state and local public officials, and the media about access to public records and meetings.

By issuing advisory opinions, whether oral or written, the FOIA Council offers assistance to resolve disputes by clarifying what the law requires and to guide future practices. The FOIA Council has no authority to mediate disagreements, but may be called upon as a resource to offer solutions to resolve FOIA disputes. As part of it statutory duties set forth at § 30-179 of the Code of Virginia, the Freedom of Information Advisory Council is charged with providing opinions about the application and interpretation of Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act, conducting FOIA training seminars, and publishing educational materials.

 


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