SUNSHINE WEEK: Examining how school districts spend money

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A citizen’s right to know and journalists’ rights to report are threatened every day, say the organizers of Sunshine Week, who planned the weeklong program to highlight freedom of information issues and emphasize the importance of open government. The Student Press Law Center is celebrating Sunshine Week with a series of reports on how student journalists can encourage open government and use open records to expand their journalistic horizons and let the sunshine in.

Requesting financial records from a public school district can cause some staff to raise their eyebrows. But obtaining the records is often quite simple, and the information could make an informative high school newspaper story.

The Student Press Law Center called 15 public school districts across America asking for the superintendent’s expense reimbursements for the 2006-07 school year. Our test was not designed to be scientific, but we chose school districts located in different areas, to see if there were noticeable differences. The population of these communities ranged from 14,000 to 1.5 million.

We sent formal request letters to all districts except Sioux Falls School District, in South Dakota, which faxed us the information immediately after our phone call.

The records we received by the time this article was printed showed that the size of the school district did not always correlate with their superintendent’s reimbursements. Phoenix, with a population of 1.5 million, spent about $3,800 reimbursing its superintendent, while East Baton Rouge Parish School System, with a community population of about 429,000, spent more than $11,000. Sioux Falls spent the least amount at about $300. Laguna Beach spent the most, at $18,500, but $18,000 was for relocation expenses for a new superintendent. Overall, districts spent the most on travel reimbursements, meals and conferences.

Most district representatives, while acting respectful, acted as though this information had never been requested before. The most common questions asked were “What are you using this for?” and “Are you looking for anything in particular?” The answer we gave when asked why we needed the records was “We are doing some research at the office.” We wanted to avoid being too specific because all we really wanted to know is if districts would comply.

Corinna Zarek, Freedom of Information Director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said someone’s purpose for requesting records should not matter.

“Either they are public records and releasable under the state’s open records law, or they are not. There is not a ‘purpose’ consideration that should come into play.”

When someone pressured us on why we needed the information, we held to our research explanation and said they could either send the records or send a letter explaining why they could not release the information. The most important thing is to be respectful, and realize that it is not every day that a reporter inquires about the superintendent’s expenses.

Despite skepticism from most districts on why we wanted the information, the SPLC received only one letter denying our request. Nine schools sent us records, three had responded that they were working on our request and two had not responded by the deadline.

Bradley County Schools in Tennessee denied our request by citing state code, which says only Tennessee citizens have access to public records. One spring SPLC intern, while a Canadian citizen, is a resident of Tennessee. She filed the request on our behalf, and we are waiting to hear back from the district’s attorneys.

Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the SPLC, said Tennessee’s open records law does not define “citizen,” and most times, a copy of that person’s driver’s license — which residents have — will guarantee them the records.

After requesting information from East Baton Rouge Parish School System, the business operations officer told us the information we requested would cost more than $50 because the information was not available on one central document. She said collecting the information would take her a while to compile. After saying we would get back to her, the superintendent herself called to let us know her office would provide whatever records we needed. We eventually received one document that included the date and amount of each reimbursement, but it did not specify what every reimbursement was for.

Jenks Public Schools sent us the records we requested, but tacked on a $62.50 charge for copying fees and research costs. Our original request letter to Jenks said to notify us if charges would exceed $10. Since no one notified us, Goldstein sent back a letter saying the SPLC legally does not have to pay more than $10. Jenks’ response is pending. If this should happen to you, and the district will not waive the unexpected charge, contact a local lawyer or the SPLC for help.

All information we requested was sent to us within the time limit specified by that state’s law. Two states gave three business days, one gave seven business days, another said to respond “as soon as possible and without delay,” and with the exception of Louisiana giving 10 calendar days, all other states gave 10 business days. Goldstein said public agencies just have to respond during that time period, which does not mean they actually have to send the records by that day.

Goldstein said when states do not respond by their deadline — most states we contacted had 10 business days — you should follow up with one more letter. If you still get no response, the next step would be to sue. But some states offer other options, such as a commission or ombudsman’s office designed to mediate open-records or open-meetings disputes without expensive litigation.

Requesting financial information from different districts in a state, or just your own, could make a good high school newspaper story. Records from different districts might highlight differences in school spending, and the information would give students an overall understanding of how money is being spent in their district.

We did not call any private schools, mainly because many are not required to release the same information as public schools. However, if the information is held by a government agency, that information is available from that agency, regardless of where you go to school.

Zarek said if, for example, a private university gets a federal research grant, public reporting on that research is required. Certain university police information, such as the blotter, must also be kept public.

For more information on each state’s Freedom of Information law, a good resource is the Open Government Guide published by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. It can be viewed for free at The Student Press Law Center Web site offers information on open records laws and can help you write your own formal request letter.