Ohio school districts perform poorly in audit of open-records law compliance

OHIO— School districts failed to make the grade in an Ohio Coalition for OpenGovernment public records audit, releasing records the same day or the next lessthan 30 percent of the time — the lowest rate of any public body includedin the statewide audit.In the study, more than 90 auditors from variousmedia outlets and universities posed as regular citizens to get records fromcounty governments, school districts and police departments. Auditorssought one record from all of Ohio’s 88 counties in each of the followingcategories: county board meeting minutes, executive expense reports, policechief pay, police incident reports, superintendent compensation and schooldistrict treasurer phone bills.“The records requested in thisaudit are clearly public in nature and, when available, should have beenprovided in a timely manner,” Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro toldCleveland’s The Plain Dealer in a June 13 article. Overall,52.7 percent of the record requests were granted on the same day or next day.Broken down, 80.5 percent of county board minutes requests, 53.1 percent ofexecutive expense report requests, 63.5 percent of police chief pay requests and60.5 percent of police chief incident requests were granted the same day or thenext. The superintendent compensation and school district treasurer phone billrequests, however, were granted only 28.6 and 29.4 percent of the time,respectively.“It would be my hope that the public becomesoutraged,” state Rep. Scott Oelslager, R-Canton, an open-records advocate,told The Plain Dealer. “These are the people’s records. Theserecords were paid for with tax dollars.”Ohio School BoardsAssociation spokesman Scott Ebright said both of the requested records are“clearly public records.” Minus a few exemptions,Ohio’s open-record law states “ all public records shall be promptlyprepared and made available for inspection to any person at all reasonable timesduring regular business hours.”Ebright stressed that an explicittimeframe for producing records is not stated in the law.“Theresults would have been better if they would have come back in three or fourdays,” he said.The audit’s findings report, however, saysthat allowing respondents to reply within the same or next day of the requestwas a “liberal” amount of time. Ebright offered two reasonsfor school districts’ low score on the audit. He said some districts donot keep phone records for individual employees and it was the first time someofficials had encountered the specific information requests.“Theissue is that many districts do not keep that information in the form it wasasked for. So, by law, they don’t have to respond to that,” hesaid.Ebright added that the audit clearly pointed out the media’srole as watchdog and the need for a better understanding of the open-recordslaw.“We need to do a better job of training,” hesaid.To facilitate training, the Ohio School Boards Association plans tosend a newsletter and a guide about Ohio’s open-records laws to all Ohiosuperintendents, treasurers and school board members. The association also hasan open-records law training video on its Web site.