Del Mar Union School District attorney preparing response to public-records lawsuit

By Marsha Sutton

Senior Education Writer

Del Mar parent Michael Robertson, who sued the Del Mar Union School District on Aug. 8 to compel the release of specific email documents, said he and his attorney received a letter last week from DMUSD attorney Dan Shinoff, of Stutz Artiano Shinoff & Holtz, saying Robertson can soon expect a legal response from the district.

“We were served with the lawsuit, and now we’re filing a response to the lawsuit,” Shinoff said. “We’re going to ask for a hearing on it on an expedited basis.”

“I’m fascinated to hear what they’re going to say on why they shouldn’t have to give us this,” Robertson said. “I don’t know what reasonable explanation these guys could have.”

Robertson submitted a California Public Records Act request May 10, asking the district for all communications related to the California Teachers Association’s Week of Action held May 9 to 13. The state’s largest teachers’ union promoted the Week of Action as a way to raise awareness and encourage parents and the public to support increased funding for education.

Robertson filed his CPRA request to review correspondence among district employees, school board members and CTA organizers because he suspected that the district was working with the CTA to coordinate political action, which he said is inappropriate.

Also named in the suit is DMUSD school board president Comischell Rodriguez, for access to her personal emails related to the CPRA request.

Because she “possesses, maintains and controls records responsive to Petitioner’s requests that are not maintained in files” at the district’s offices, “Rodriguez is an indispensible part to this litigation,” reads the suit.

Robertson said the chances of settling the case out of court are low. “The odds of them saying, ‘Okay, you win’ is zero,” Robertson said, vowing to continue litigation to its final conclusion.

Robertson said he was “astonished” that the district would proceed with the litigation. “This will be a giant case, blowing through tens of thousands of dollars, when they should just turn over the damn documents,” he said. “This is money that should be going toward pure educational needs. It should not be going to Stutz Artiano Shinoff & Holtz.”

In a May 27 letter to Robertson, the district said the request was “vague, overbroad and burdensome,” that it was “unrelated to the conduct of the public’s business,” and that the records are “exempt from disclosure because the public interest in not disclosing the information clearly outweighs the public interest served by disclosure.”

Robertson was critical of the district’s objections. “The outside law firm is happy to burn up DMUSD tax dollars dreaming up creative arguments about why they shouldn’t have to abide by the California Public Records Act like every other government organization,” he said. “Their attitude is, they don’t work for us [and] they should get to decide what information we get. We should just be content with whatever they decide.”

When asked why the district did not release all the emails, Shinoff said there are no more documents to be released. “We’ve provided him every public record that he’s asked for,” Shinoff said.

Robertson said he has received some emails from the district, but the documents released are incomplete and not fully responsive to his CPRA request. [see sidebar]

Regarding the personal Rodriguez emails sent to and from her private accounts, Shinoff said those are protected by law. “The United States Supreme Court has already ruled on this issue,” he said.

A public record, Shinoff said, is defined as “something that is maintained and controlled by the governmental agency,” not by private individuals. He said the Supreme Court decided this issue under the Freedom of Information Act, which is the model for the Calif. Public Records Act.

“If Mr. Robertson wants to have a different position in the state of California, he gets to make new law,” Shinoff said.

But Robertson said this is uncharted, potentially precedent-setting territory and that the personal emails are public documents. “Our contention is if it was used to do district business, it shouldn’t be protected,” he said.

Shinoff said the district has complied with the CPRA request and there are no more documents to release.

Emails released by DMUSD

By Marsha Sutton

Senior Education Writer

Emails released by the Del Mar Union School District to Del Mar parent Michael Robertson, in response to his California Public Records Act request for communication between the state California Teachers’ Association and representatives of the DMUSD, show that the district used CTA guidelines and recommendations to plan and coordinate events and activities for last May’s Week of Action.

Robertson asked for all emails related to the Week of Action, which was organized by the CTA and many local school districts to increase awareness and support for increased education funding.

Although Robertson said the district has more undisclosed documents, he said those he was given show a clear link between the district and the state teachers’ union.

David Skinner – former president of the Del Mar California Teachers Association, a member of the statewide CTA – wrote to DMUSD superintendent Jim Peabody April 21 asking to meet.

“We (DMCTA) are planning some activities to increase awareness of the state budget situation among our teachers and parents,” Skinner said in the email. “I would like to see if we can coordinate our energies with any district initiatives. Perhaps we can plan some things to show a unified front.”

DMUSD Trustee Kristin Gibson wrote to Peabody on April 22 that she and fellow trustee Scott Wooden “attended a DMCTA PAC meeting and we discussed the California State of Emergency Week of Action that CTA and CSBA [California School Boards Association] are promoting.”

“Our PAC wants to be involved, and would like the support of the board,” Gibson wrote.

Amy Hunter, political organizer for Region IV of the CTA, wrote to Skinner and Ocean Air teacher Carol Sharpe April 22 and provided a number of documents for them, including telephone scripts (“one for a board member or superintendent”), a sample resolution for the school board (“this needs to go to Kristin Gibson”), and a link to the State of Emergency Web site which offered talking points, flyers, sample letters to the editor and other information.

“Let me know what else I can help with,” Hunter wrote. “You guys are going to rock this out!!!”

Sycamore Ridge teacher Debbie Hanna, who identified herself as a member of the DMCTA PAC, sent Peabody an email April 28 with an attached script for an all-call recorded telephone message to parents in support of the Week of Action. “If you would be so kind as to make this all-call,” she wrote.

On May 4, Del Mar Hills teacher Eric Bienke wrote to Hills PTA president Mara Bickett, asking her to sign the Week of Action letter instead of him. “I was kind of envisioning that the email would be coming from the PTA, urging its members to get involved, and not coming from me personally,” Bienke wrote. “I think parents are going to be confused as to why I am sending this email out to the entire parent community.”

Skinner wrote to Peabody May 4 with a draft letter that he asked Peabody to review and sign, to send to parents and the media highlighting the Week of Action’s activities. “Thanks for helping; it’s turning into a true ‘saturation campaign!’” Skinner wrote.

“It is a wonderful letter,” Peabody replied.

Gibson suggested adding a sentence to the letter about the loss of some of the district’s temporary teachers. The sentence read in part: “We were forced to release 25 of our temporary teachers … this is a tremendous loss.”

“It works well for me,” Peabody replied, of the letter. “Besides principals, district office, board members, and PTA folks, who do you want me to track down to sign?”

Union involvement

Robertson said the emails “clearly show that the CTA directs the DMUSD school board, school administration and teachers to engage in an overt political campaign.”

He said the DMCTA PAC “directed the superintendent to place all calls” and told the schools to host meetings. “The school board was told what resolution to pass and all the literature came from the CTA,” he said.

“When the administration and board simply become employees of the CTA who directs their actions, then the system becomes perverted and fails,” Robertson said.

School board president Comischell Rodriguez reacted with surprise to Robertson’s charges. “We are not endorsing a candidate nor a party,” she wrote in a May 6 email to Peabody. “We are doing our job to defend and be a part of the greater educational conversation.”

“My thoughts exactly!” Peabody responded.