Public-records struggle highlights statewide problem

July 7, 2011 1:06:36 PM PDT
The La Honda-Pescadero Unified School District's problems with managing school construction projects have triggered scrutiny, lawsuits, an emergency county loan and the resignation of a superintendent.

Two years ago, Bryan Burns, a parent in the district in southeastern San Mateo County, filed a California Public Records Act request to find out how the mess started and why. He asked for departing Superintendent Tim Beard's e-mails to learn more about how the oversight broke down. Beard has since left California to take a school job in Costa Rica.

The records act requires a response within 10 days. Burns got his response in April ? two years later. And the response said this: It would cost him $3,000 for the district to even begin processing the e-mails.

"The request has become so old now, it's really become a joke," Burns told the Half Moon Bay Review recently. "I have hunches. There must be something good in there if they don't want to hand them over."

Burns' experience may be more common than you might think. A study released earlier this year by the advocacy group Californians Aware found that most school districts failed to provide public records when requested.

The objective of the California Public Records Act, enacted in 1968, is to ensure the public's right to know how state and local governments are functioning. In 2004, voters strengthened that right by passing Proposition 59, which made access to public records and information about government part of the state's Constitution:

"The people have the right of access to information concerning the conduct of the people's business, and, therefore, the meetings of public bodies and the writings of public officials and agencies shall be open to public scrutiny. California Constitution, Article 1, Section 3(b)(1). Yet, many school districts are struggling to comply."

Out of 194 school districts that Californians Aware audited for compliance, 104 received "F" grades. Many flatly ignored the group's request for information despite multiple attempts. Forty-one school districts performed well, including the Poway Unified School District, which supplied responsive records for free by e-mail within three days of the request.

Attorney Terry Francke, co-founder of Californians Aware, wrote:

"By their prompt and courteous responses, these districts demonstrated an interest in keeping the public informed. These responses also show that a professional approach to requests for information can lead to the inference that the district is competent and cares about the people it serves."

Last week, current La Honda District Superintendent Amy Wooliever said in news reports that the district simply doesn't have the time to comply with Burns' request, which she says involves examining 23,000 documents. She added that she is the only one at the district who could review the e-mails and would be able to spend only two hours a week on the task.

"I don't want it to come across that we don't want to fulfill a public record request," she said. "It's just a huge request. There's 23,000 documents here that I have to review."

Jim Ewert, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, told the Review he questioned whether the school district was making enough effort. Francke chimed in, questioning Wooliever's approach:

"I suspect this request is being made more formidable than necessary. Are these e-mails not electronically word-searchable? If they are, the use of a few judiciously selected keywords related to the construction project should isolate most of the relevant messages. The chance that those messages would contain confidential student information is so vanishingly remote as not to warrant review, and it should not be hard further to isolate and withhold the messages sent to or received from legal counsel.

To the extent that special computer programming would be required to conduct this searching and sifting, the law allows the cost of that work to be passed on to the requester. Nothing in the law, in other words, requires this superintendent or any other person to read all her predecessor's e-mails in order to comply with the request."

Because disputes over public records are common, New York, Arizona, Florida and other states have created independent referees, called ombudsmen, whom residents can turn to whenever agencies refuse to provide information. In California, the only recourse is to file a lawsuit, a costly option.

Story courtesy of our media partners at California Watch (A Project of the Center for Investigative Reporting)

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