School District of Milton School Board President Joe Martin started discussion about open records requests Monday night.
Why was that on the agenda?
“It was merely on here to trigger responses from all of you,” he said. “Just wanted to make folks aware of the process or practice of open record requesting. Most of you are aware, it’s a means by which anyone can get information from the district about public records that we are bound to keep and disclose as needed. It has become a bit problematic in a cumulative effect. The records requests have added up a little if you will such that they are causing a tremendous burden on our staff at district level. We are a little short-staffed at district level, as you are aware so there are fewer shoulders still bearing the burden of these open record requests.”
Martin continued: “I want the board specifically and the community in general to know that we certainly are compelled and willing to meet and honor all these record requests, but they come at a considerable cost. We have a lot of staff time involved and quite frankly that’s pulling our folks away from the stuff that we need them to do.”
He also shared the legal bill relative to open record requests since Jan. 1 that the district is paying is $16,000.
“Those are not costs we can recoup on any of the requesters,” he said. “Those are costs we have to bear and we will.”
At this time, there are at least seven pending records requests.
“That will take more staff time and more legal investigation and augmentation,” Martin said.
He asked for the rest of the board’s opinion on open records requests in general.
School board member Diamond McKenna asked, “Could you educationally guestimate how much time district employees have allocated toward open records requests since January that they’re not spending on their daily tasks?”
Superintendent Tim Schigur said dozens of hours.
“Right now it’s a minimum a half-time job to fill those requests for the next two months,” he said. “It’s daunting.”
Asking for emails, especially board member emails, that’s 10s of thousands of emails that have to be gone through, he said.
While it may seem like an easy request, he said going through board member emails takes weeks.
School board member Brian Kvapil, turning to Martin, expressed concern, “It almost seems like we’re trying to dissuade, try(ing) to prevent people or try(ing) to convince people not to ask for information, which is their legal right to ask for that information. So why we’re talking about oh, this is so much of a burden and costing us so much money. Guess what, that’s our responsibility.”
He said: “It almost seems like we’re trying not to be transparent. I guess I really have a problem with the way this conversation is going. Maybe I’m misunderstanding people here. To me, it just doesn’t seem right.”
Schigur said if board members get questions about why people are not getting information in a timely manner, he said these are daunting tasks.
“Then why are we talking about how much it costs,” Kvapil said.
McKenna said, “I think that’s important for people to know that there is a cost associated with an open records request.”
Kvapil said the cost is immaterial.
“I don’t think anyone’s arguing that it’s not but the taxpayers often have brought up different things that the district spends money on or where money goes,” said McKenna, adding she previously didn’t know the cost.
She said she didn’t think it’s wrong to associate the cost that goes with open records requests whether the cost is money or “in terms of our staff and what they should be doing for the district.”
Kvapil said, “If we were more transparent in the beginning, we probably wouldn’t be having all these requests.”
As a newspaper, it has been our experience that unanswered questions lead to more questions. That, in turn, leads to more work and more frustration whether you are making or fulfilling the request. Let’s continue the discussion, but more importantly let’s continue the communication and sharing of information.