Tiffany Flinn, a parent of two Columbia School District students, shows a bill for $1,212.78 that she was charged to get information through the Freedom of Information Act from Columbia School District. Flinn has requested to know.
By Matt Schepeler
Sunshine Week has just passed.
For those who don’t know, Sunshine Week is an annual celebration — this year March 13-19 — aimed specifically to create ease of accessibility to government records. The annual observance is geared to promote open government.
But one resident trying to obtain public information said that she is being left in the dark by the Columbia Central School District, not by a flat-out denial of information, but by what she says is an exorbitant fee for it.
Tiffany Flinn is the mother of two children in the district and says she and other parents have become “very concerned with a lack of transparency” in Columbia schools.
Flinn said she believes the heart of the problem is with the administration, and specifically with Superintendent Pamela Campbell.
Flinn teaches cosmetology at the Jackson Area Career Center and is a 2003 graduate from the Columbia district. (more below)
“First and foremost, there is bullying that is happening among children, and, I believe, through Pam. I think she uses intimidation tactics with parents, her staff, and students.” Flinn said she came to this opinion after attending some board meetings, then seeing an email that was forwarded to her from a staff member that originated from Campbell referring to a parent as “an anti-masker.”
“I just felt that would foster division in the community by trying to get your staff to have negative feelings towards parents who might not agree with the masking policy that [the school] instituted,” said Flinn. She said she complained to the school board but said that nothing came of it. “It seems like there is a lot of sweeping things under the rug there,” said Flinn.
In response to Flinn’s statement regarding the “anti-mask” comment, Campbell in a telephone conversation said she was merely striving for brevity in the email, and never intended it to be derogatory. “I was never trying to be mean . . . the entire email was about being consistent” with the rules the district had established.
Wanting to learn more, Flinn filed a Freedom of Information Act request asking for “an opportunity to inspect or obtain copies of public records that provide any and all communications sent by Dr. Pamela Campbell, Superintendent of Columbia School District, via email, email messaging, text messaging, voice messaging, social media messages and any voice or video recordings.” She also requested any emails generated from Bob Wahr, Columbia school board president. She isolated the dates from October 2021 through February 3, 2022, in the FOIA request. She asked that the information be transferred electronically, in order to cut down on the expense. She asked if the cost was to exceed $25 that she be notified. (more below)
On Feb. 23, 2022, Flinn received an invoice for the FOIA request for $1,212.78. When asked why the fee was so much, Campbell said in a telephone conversation Monday “Because they asked for a ton of stuff, and it took hours and hours and hours to put together.
“We were careful to mark down how much time was spent. It came to 1,759 pieces of paper, and they’re actually more that we were able to get through our website people,” she said. The invoice charges 10 cents apiece for copies and various hourly fees for three employees.
This is not the first time the use of emails at Columbia schools has been publicly questioned, or that charges of bullying have been levied against the district. Both happened earlier in the school year.
Scott Ellison was an assistant coach who filed a complaint in September against an assistant football coach as well as head coach Josh Kubiak, who was also serving as the athletic director. Ellison leveled charges of bullying and the use of inappropriate language against the coaches. (more below)
Ellison said of primary concern to him was the way his complaint was handled. After he emailed Campbell his complaint, he says she forwarded it to both the coaches named in the complaint and one of the principals, which he says is a violation of the Michigan Whistleblower’s Act. “I found out through one of our former players,” he said.
Ellison said that nothing came of it until he complained at a school board meeting that was reported in the Exponent. Since then the assistant coach has resigned and Kubiak’s duties have been pared back. He is no longer athletic director, and as an assistant principal can no longer work as a coach. He is making the same pay and is free to go coach for another district. No formal disciplinary action over the allegations appears to have occurred.
When asked if she had forwarded the information Ellison provided to her to the coaches and principal, Campbell said she had. “I had asked him for bullet points,” she said, noting that originally Ellison gave her a large amount of information. “I shared the bullet points with [the assistant coach] and Josh [Kubiak] and Christy O’Neal, because she would be in on any investigation.”
When asked if they would have known if the complaint came from Ellison, she said “They did,” adding that she thought they were in agreement on how the bullet points were to be used.
“I am sorry if he feels I let him down . . . it was just a misunderstanding, I guess.” (more below)
Flinn has not, as of this writing, picked up the requested FOIA information due to the cost, but says she still may pick up the $1,212.78 tab. She says a primary concern is that the district’s checks and balances appear to be compromised. “Between him [Bob Wahr] and her [Campbell], she is running the show,” said Flinn, adding that she believes the board has been instructed to always vote unanimously on issues to “present a united front to the community.”
“You have a seven-member board for a reason,” she said.
The Exponent examined the board minutes posted on the district’s website for the past year. Since February of 2020, there have been no dissenting votes from the 121 motions made. That comes to 786 “yes” votes without a single “no”.
As for the cost of the FOIA, Flinn believes the high fee is a tactic to either punish her for requesting it or to prevent her from getting it, or both. She said she had gotten information through the FOIA before, and they only charged her for the copies.
“I mean, you have a war going on, gas prices are going up, all these things are expensive, then you hit me with a $1,200 bill?
“When [the next] seat opens, I’ll be running for school board,” she said.
Campbell said she believes that charges of bullying in the district are overblown and added that getting through COVID was hard on everyone – from staff to students.
“We are not bullying anybody here. There are no administrators or teachers bullying anyone. I do think from time to time there are students who say mean things to each other that would be construed as bullying, but I don’t see that administrators or staff are bullying anybody.”