Saturday, December 17, 2011

Emails reveal likely members of calendar committee, raise doubts about Stillwater school district's open records response


Emails sent from a Stillwater public school official to a calendar committee reveal the likely identities of members omitted from the district's response to an Open Records Act request.

The emails were sent from Annie Needham, administrative assistant for educational services, to committee members on Nov. 10 and Nov. 11.

The recipient lists include johnh@meridiantech.edu, candace.thrasher@okstate.edu, jscott@stillwater.org, stwymcachildcare@gmail.com and toniwolfe@renkids.com.

According to organizational websites, those are the email addresses for:
  • John Howell, assistant superintendent of Meridian Technology Center in Stillwater;
  • Candace Thrasher, manager of outreach education for the OSU College of Education;
  • Jim Scott, operations manager for the Stillwater Parks and Recreation Department;
  • Sarah Alleman, child care director for the Stillwater YMCA; and
  • Toni L. Wolfe, director of The Renaissance School at Sangre in Stillwater.
Wolfe provided the emails to Stillwater parent Mitsi Andrews, who last week requested the names of the school district committee that had proposed a controversial school calendar.

Wolfe said Stillwater Superintendent Ann Caine asked her to serve on the committee.

The emails raise additional serious doubts about the sincerity of the district's response to Andrews' request.

An attorney for the district said it had only one document with the names of the committee members and that the record was only a "partial list of members."

Missing are the names of representatives from OSU, Meridian Technology Center, the city of Stillwater and local childcare providers that Caine said were on the committee.

But Needham's emails include the full names for Candace Thrasher and Toni Wolfe. Why weren't these emails included in the district's response?

For that matter, how could Needham have sent emails to the committee if she didn't have a membership list of some kind?

And how could the district contact the non-employee members -- as the attorney said it would do -- to ask for their committee-related emails, text messages and other correspondence also requested by Andrews? (Read related posting on search fee the district wants to charge Andrews.)

And how could Caine reconvene the committee in January, as she told the school board she would do, if she doesn't have their names?

The statutory definition of public record is "all documents, including, but not limited to any book, paper, photograph, microfilm, data files created by or used with computer software, computer tape, disk, record, sound recording, film recording, video record or other material regardless of physical form or characteristic,..." (OKLA. STAT. tit. 51, § 24A.3(1))

That definition "is broad enough to include any method of memorializing information," the state Supreme Court said in 2004. (Fabian & Assoc., P.C., v. State ex. rel. Dept. of Public Safety, 2004 OK 67, ¶ 10)

The purpose of the Open Records Act is "to ensure and facilitate the public's right of access to and review of government records...." Facilitate means to make easier, to bring about.

Public agencies also must comply with not only the letter but also the spirit of the Open Records Act, which says Oklahomans "are vested with the inherent right to know and be fully informed about their government." (OKLA. STAT. tit. 51, § 24A.2)

Even though Caine had made it clear to Andrews that she didn't want the committee member names disclosed, Stillwater residents are entitled to know who helped shaped public school policy.

And now the question is whether the school district fulfilled its obligation under the Open Records Act when it responded to Andrews' request.


Joey Senat, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
OSU School of Media & Strategic Communications


The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the commentators and do not necessarily represent the position of FOI Oklahoma Inc., its staff, or its board of directors. Differing interpretations of open government law and policy are welcome.




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