Responding to a public-records request by the Raleigh News and Observer for school board members’ eMail messages regarding proposed changes in student assignments recently cost Wake County, N.C., schools a whopping $17,000, primarily in staff time. Think it can’t happen to you? Think again. Journalists routinely mine school and district data looking for virtual smoking guns.

Superintendent contracts, administrator salaries, teacher turnover rates, on-campus crime, student discipline incidents, credit card use, and school board travel are common Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

Recent FOIA-driven stories across the country include a school district secretary in Dallas who rang up $383,788 in credit charges and didn’t save any receipts, and how dozens of New York school districts failed to make superintendent contracts available in a timely fashion, if at all.

In New Mexico, the attorney general had to weigh in when a local school district refused to release controversial vending machine records.

Wake County’s epic FOIA quest started fairly routinely, with an apparently verbal request from a reporter asking for access to school board and administrator eMails.

According to the Raleigh News and Observer, "miscommunication" and computer glitches, however, soon turned the request into a nightmare when Wake staffers had to hand-sort through 3,000 eMails to find the 219 involving student assignments and black out information that could identify individual students.

Wake officials have since purchased new software to make sorting through past eMail messages easier, but their 15-week odyssey shows why school leaders need to review their readiness for handling similar requests.

While asking journalists and citizens to file written requests might help cut down on misunderstandings, rework, and investigative fishing expeditions, keep in mind that filing written requests is a courtesy, not a legal obligation.

Many–if not most–state statutes don’t require written notice, nor are citizens required to provide personal information such as their place of employment. Reporters shouldn’t get preferential treatment.

Open government, the intent behind FOIA and other "sunshine" laws, is to keep elected officials and public-sector employees honest by giving ordinary citizens access to information regarding how taxpayer dollars are spent and the public’s business is conducted.

Indeed, the Wake County story was prompted by questions about how much influence political and parental pressure outside of public meetings had on student assignment changes that moved more than 9,300 students from one school to another.

While no one involved in the Wake County public-records request debacle seems to believe the district was purposefully withholding information, public school officials nationwide are often slow to respond to routine public-records requests.

When FOIA was enacted 40 years ago, personal computers hadn’t been invented, the internet didn’t exist, and mining was something workers in hard hats did underground. Amendments added in 1996, however, say reporters are allowed to request electronic copies, if the record exists in that format.

Clearly, electronic or digital access is preferred, because reporters can drop the data into spreadsheets, databases, and software that can search for key words or run sophisticated statistical analyses quickly and easily.

Digital, electronic, or data-driven reporting is emerging as a journalism specialty. Unfortunately, many school districts simply aren’t equipped with the staff or technology to efficiently and effectively comb through reams of data.

Other school officials still seem to mistakenly believe that ignoring requests, stalling reporters, and hiding negative information will keep bad news away from public scrutiny. Often, however, the reverse is true. Refusing to provide public records or delaying citizens’ access to important documents is illegal and unwise.

Once investigative reporters think you have something to hide, they’ll show more persistence than an eMail spammer selling performance-enhancing drugs.

And, thanks to blogs, eZines, and other viral communication tools, the bad news they uncover can spread to a worldwide audience with just a few mouse clicks.

With August sweeps just around the corner, school leaders can expect a new round of FOIA requests.

To get ahead of the curve, check out journalism web sites such as the Investigative Reporters & Editors Resource Center, the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and the Freedom of Information Center.

Rather than wait for formal public-records requests from reporters or the public, savvy school leaders might want to post the most frequently requested documents on the web. By making records readily available online, school leaders can reduce the time and effort required to handle routine FOIA requests and can focus limited resources more wisely on other issues.

While school administrators and their legal counsel often sweat public-records requests, it’s interesting to note that more FOIA requests are made by businesses seeking information about their competitors (roughly 60 percent) than by reporters (6 percent), according to SPJ.

Forty years young, FOIA remains the cornerstone of a free press. As fellow warriors on the frontlines of democracy, we should do what we can to ensure open government, including easy access to public records and transparent decision-making processes that build public trust.

Nora Carr is chief communications officer for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. She is nationally recognized for her work in educational communications and marketing.

Links:

nvestigative Reporters & Editors Resource Center
http://ire.org

Society of Professional Journalists
http://www.spj.org

Freedom of Information Center
http://foi.missouri.edu