School districts fail access test

MISSOURI — It started out as just another school project, but 15-year-oldLindsay Rhodes soon turned the tables by using her critical thinking classassignment to put local school districts to the test.

And what the Liberty Junior High School freshman learned was that districtadministrators may need to devote some extra study hall hours to workingon their compliance with state open-records laws.

Rhodes wanted to test local school districts to measure their compliancewith the Missouri Sunshine Law, which she researched for her project. Shediscovered that agencies are obligated to provide documents requested underthe law within three business days and cannot force the person making therequest to say why he or she is asking for the records.

Rhodes sent letters to 22 school districts in the Kansas City suburbsof Clay, Platte and Johnson counties requesting contracts for the headfootball and volleyball coaches in those districts. She also asked forcopies of financial records showing the budgets for the football and volleyballteams, information that should be available to the public under state laws.

But only eight school districts even responded to her request, and Rhodessaid none were fully compliant with the law.

She received all the information she requested from the Grandview SchoolDistrict, but not within the required time limits set forth in Missouristate law. The other seven school districts that responded either gavelimited information in their response letters but provided no documents,or provided some but not all of the requested copies.

Only six of the 22 school districts responded within the required three-daytime limit and Rhodes’ own district, the Liberty School District-whoseschool board paid a $22,705 settlement in a Sunshine Law lawsuit in 1998-didnot reply at all. Rhodes said the district had agreed as part of the settlementto ensure future compliance with the law.

“Because of all the publicity about the Liberty School Board lawsuitand all the money the school district had to pay, I thought for sure thatthey would comply with the law. But they did not,” she said in her report.

As for the records showing the budgets of the school districts’ footballand volleyball programs, Rhodes received only two. She said she thinksthe public’s right to access that type of information epitomizes the needfor open-records laws.

“How else could you find out if your school was spending the same amountof money on boy’s sports as they are on girl’s sports?” Rhodes said inher report.

Rhodes said she thinks part of the reason for the lack of response wasthat the school districts may have thought they were not obligated to divulgefinancial records from their athletic programs.

“My test showed that many school districts either don’t know about theirobligations under the Sunshine Law, or don’t care,” Rhodes said. “I thinkthat should change. Our government needs to step up and make the necessarychanges to educate governmental officials about the law and to put someteeth into the law.”

Although Rhodes may be the student, she said she thinks local schooldistricts should learn a lesson from her findings.

“I feel that as a student, our schools should be practicing what theyare teaching and abiding by the laws of Missouri,” Rhodes said. “I feelthat they need to become more educated on the subject and make sure thatthey comply completely next time.”

Officials from the Liberty School District did not return calls madeto their offices by the Report.