SDUHSD addresses delay in public records request responses

The San Dieguito Union High School District (SDUHSD) continues to try and get a handle on a high volume of public records requests. According to Tina Douglas, assistant superintendent of business services, the district received 130 requests in the 2017-18 school year and of those, 112 have been fulfilled. Halfway through the 2018-19 school year, they have received 56 requests and they have filled 28.

One of the outstanding requests from 2017-18 has produced over 750,000 pages of emails.

Douglas began tracking the public records requests in the last school year when they began to stack up. She said the requests have cost the district over $40,500 and used up hundreds of hours of staff time on searches and reviewing and redacting emails for exempt records.

When responding to requests Douglas said she provides a “reasonable estimate” of when the responsive documents might be produced, however, due to the volume of requests, there has been a delay.

“We are putting them out, we’re trying our best,” Douglas said during a discussion at the Jan. 17 board meeting. “Our ultimate goal is to make sure we’re not putting anything out there that we shouldn’t. From July 1, 2018 to the latest received on Jan. 15, we have received 186 total. That is well over a million pages of documents to review. Therein lies the delay in response time for public records.”

SDUHSD Superintendent Robert Haley said the district has had its fair share of requests that are “overly broad and burdensome,” what some board members equate to fishing expeditions or blanket requests.

Haley gave as an example requests for every email between him and an assistant superintendent over a six-month period with the word “wellness” in it or every email from 2014-17 between 16 people that contains the word “student”. That’s how you end up with requests with 750,000 emails, he said.

“Those are the kind of requests where you ask ‘What are you looking for? What is it that you want to know?’” Haley said, adding that the district is willing to work with people on crafting a records requests that gets them the information they want. “If it’s something we can tell you, we’ll tell you. If it’s something we can find and disclose, we’ll find and disclose. You’re actually making it less transparent just going so overly broad.”

In those cases Haley encouraged people to instead come in and meet with staff to find what they are looking for, “We get requests that take an immense amount of staff time when it really could’ve been handled by a conversation,” Haley said.

Public records requests have become a big issue for districts throughout the county and state—SDUHSD Vice President Mo Muir said it was a prevalent topic among school board member conversations at a recent California School Boards Association meeting. Neighboring Poway Unified School District had 78 public records act requests in the 2017-18 school year.

The California Public Records Act (CPRA) is meant to guarantee that the public has access to public records of governmental bodies. The legislation states that: “access to information concerning the conduct of the people’s business is a fundamental and necessary right of every person in this state.” Anyone can request public documents in California and a purpose does not have to be stated.

A public record is defined as “any writing containing information relating to the conduct of the public’s business prepared, owned, used or retained by any state or local agency regardless of physical form or characteristics”—that includes emails and text messages.

The act states that upon request, records shall be disclosed to the public unless there is a specific reason not to do so. There are exemptions with records related to closed session, litigation, communication between teachers and parents, personnel and credentialed employee records and student records, which are protected under federal law. Haley said even when student information is redacted from a public record, the student may still be identifiable in documents released to the public and the district would be in violation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).

There are different layers to the requests that school districts receive, not all are generated by parents and taxpayers. Because of how broad it is, the CPRA can be used to compile statistical information for things like school rankings and vendors can use it to try to sell products.

Per the act, a local agency must respond no later than 10 calendar days from receipt of the request, to notify whether records will be disclosed. The agency may extend the response period for reasons like the need to search for, collect, and appropriately examine a voluminous amount of records demanded in a request but it may not request the time to extend on the basis that it has other pressing business.

Parent Lea Wolf has raised questions about the district’s response to public records requests.

Wolf has several outstanding requests going back to May 2018, relating to a former student, personnel including the current union president, 2017-18 salaries and compensations for all employees and sexual harassment. Wolf said she has been told her requests are too broad even when it is specific and too specific even when it is broad. She has accused the district of favoritism, of fulfilling some requests earlier than others.

“It seems almost a culture inside the district to deflect, deny, and delay response to exhaust our energy and resources, so we go away,” Wolf said.

“I perceive these responses as deliberate to cover the district’s unethical behavior. I’m hoping it is not the case,” Wolf wrote in an email to the board in December. “This is a public organization for the education of our students.This is not the board’s social club nor a piggy bank for friends and family. Delivering the records is your job and our legal right.”

Wolf said she has filed a complaint with the California Department of Education against the district and is pursuing filing a similar complaint with the San Diego County Office of Education for violating taxpayer rights and engaging in discriminatory practices. Haley has agreed to meet with Wolf to share her complaints along with a member of the board and a representative from the county office.

Douglas said there are times when the district has denied requests or has asked people to narrow the scope of their search, not in an effort to limit what they’re looking for but in an attempt make the process move quicker and find the information they seek. She said they have even brought five individuals into the office to show them how the search function works and explain why search criteria is crucial to help narrow the scope.

Board member Melisse Mossy said she appreciated the discussion and in her understanding, the district is being careful to protect students, “not to cover up impropriety.”

Board member Kristin Gibson said she loves the idea of giving people the information they need and would like to assume most public records requests come with good intentions, from people are trying to advocate for their children.

“I think people have to understand the cost,” Gibson said. “I feel a little bit almost angry right now because as a parent I would want to know if people in my community were making these sorts of egregious requests because it’s taking your time away from things you should be doing on behalf of my kid. It’s not what I want staff spending time on.

I think everyone in the community should be aware of this because it’s having a negative impact on everyone’s kids.”

“We want to be transparent, that is not the issue,” Haley added. “It’s actually easier to be transparent if people would cooperate with us.”