Citizens and journalists can be charged fees from local school districts to obtain copies of public records such as budgetary and enrollment information. However, it’s free to visit district offices and inspect the records in person.

That would change under a bill backed by the Tennessee School Boards Association, which supports levying a charge for in-person peeks at public records.

Sponsored by Sen. Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville) and Rep. Steve McDaniel (R-Parkers Crossroads), the bill would make the first hour of labor and the first 25 copies free. After that, however, a records custodian could levy a charge, including fees for time spent by employees to compile or redact a record.

Association spokesman Ben Torres says such payments make financial sense.

“Some requests to inspect public records take dozens of hours and thousands of dollars in which to comply, yet the entity may not charge a cent,” Torres said Thursday. “While a taxpayer should have the ability to access public information, the law should provide for reasonable fees to ensure that every other taxpayer’s interests are protected from tremendous costs and abuse.”

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Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.

Advocates for open government disagree. Having the option to inspect records for free allows Tennesseans to see information they otherwise might not be able to afford, said Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.

Few states charge for in-person visits to review public records, although charges for copies and administrative costs associated with preparing records are the norm.

The bill would impact all public records in Tennessee, not just school records.