Monday, February 20, 2012

Stillwater school district drops search fee, $250 deposit for copies of calendar committee's emails

A Stillwater parent says the school district sent a CD of requested committee emails without mentioning a $250 deposit or search fee.

An attorney for the district had told Mitsi Andrews she would have to pay the deposit before the district would begin compiling the emails for her inspection.

Andrews wanted to read the emails, text messages and other correspondence in which members of a school district committee discussed a controversial school calendar. She asked to inspect the emails after being told by Superintendent Ann Caine that no minutes existed for the committee's meetings.

Caine had also refused to identify all the members of the committee. (Read related posting.)

The attorney had told Andrews all the collected documents would have to be reviewed by district personnel or his Tulsa law firm for exempted material.

"The District believes your ORA request would clearly cause excessive disruption of the District's essential functions," said Kent B. Rainey of Rosenstein, Fist & Ringold.

Therefore, he said, Andrews would be charged a "fee to recover the direct cost of the document search." (The district charges a search fee of $25 per hour, according to its open records policy.)

But the Open Records Act prohibits a search fee in these circumstances, stating:
In no case, shall a search fee be charged when the release of records is in the public interest, including, but not limited to, release to the news media, scholars, authors and taxpayers seeking to determine whether those entrusted with the affairs of the government are honestly, faithfully, and competently performing their duties as public servants. (OKLA. STAT. tit. 51, § 24A.5(3))
The district's open records policy echoes that language, saying, "Search fees shall not be charged for records sought in the public interest, including, but not limited to releases to the news media, scholars, authors, and taxpayers seeking to determine whether officials of the district are honestly, faithfully, and competently performing their duties as public servants."

Andrews' request certainly fits within this provision. She had requested records that could reveal the pros and cons discussed by a committee that did not meet publicly and that was told to keep quiet about the proposal it was developing.

Andrews said one of the emails she received had told district representatives on the committee that Caine didn't want them discussing it with anyone else.

"Mums the word until the calendar is proposed," Andrews said the email instructed.

But a more transparent process could have addressed parental objections as the policy was developed, not after it was announced, and allayed parent and student anxiety about radically changing the school calendar.

As it was, the school board voted to keep the traditional school calendar for 2012-13 because of parents' concerns and to consider the continuous learning academic calendar for the following year.

Caine told the Stillwater Journal last month that she planned to reconvene the committee to make a fresh start designing a calendar that takes into account the concerns revealed in a parent survey.

Perhaps the process will be more open this time around.

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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