Schools lag on providing public records

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 14, 2004

CINCINNATI - A lot of school districts are failing when it comes to complying with Ohio's public records law.

In a recent statewide audit conducted by more than 90 media representatives, more than half of the school districts contacted denied the auditors prompt and unconditional access to public records. That's at least twice the denial rate of the records requests made to city and county governments and police departments that were part of the same audit.

Without identifying themselves, auditors asked a school district in each of Ohio's 88 counties to see any records showing the total compensation to the superintendent for the 2002-2003 school year and the most recent telephone bill for the main phone in the office of the school district's treasurer.

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Of the 84 school districts where the auditors were not recognized as members of the news media, 41 districts refused to provide records of the superintendent's compensation and 19 granted it conditionally or partially. Of 85 valid responses to requests for the treasurer's monthly phone bill, 43 districts denied access and 17 granted it conditionally or partially.

One of the auditors, Mike Tobin of The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, said he couldn't even get past the security guard when he asked for public records from the Cleveland Municipal School District.

"He demanded to know who I was with," Tobin said. "Then he made a phone call and, once done, informed me I had to send a written request to the media office."

The public records audit was mainly conducted on April 21 under the sponsorship of the Ohio Coalition for Open Government, which was established by the Ohio Newspaper Association, a trade organization that represents 83 daily and 163 weekly newspapers.

After asking to see the records, the auditors requested copies.

Ohio's public records law says "all records shall be promptly prepared and made available for inspection to any person at all reasonable times during regular business hours." It also requires public offices to provide copies at cost within a reasonable time period.

Those who violate the law could be ordered by a court to release the documents and pay attorney fees for a person who files a lawsuit after being denied access and copies of the records.

Only 19 of 84 school districts granted access to the superintendent's compensation records on the same day as the request. Twenty-one out of 85 school districts allowed auditors to view the treasurer's monthly phone bill on the same day it was requested.

The law doesn't require people to provide names, affiliations or their reasons for wanting access to the public records. Yet some school districts refused to grant auditors access to the records until they gave their names and identified their employers.

Bellefontaine City Schools officials didn't give auditor Rebecca Sullivan of the Bellefontaine Examiner the superintendent's compensation information until she provided her name. She said they told her the treasurer's monthly phone bill was not a public record and refused to let her see it.

"It was stated (to me) it was not public knowledge," Sullivan said. "It was the concern of the school board."

When Jim Boggan, of The (London) Madison Press, asked to look at a record with the superintendent's compensation, a Jonathan Alder School District employee told him two days after his request that it wouldn't be available for another three or four days. He also was told he would have to submit a written request and was asked why he wanted to see the record.

"When I declined to tell her and pointed out that it was public record, she said, 'It's also in our best interests to know why you want it,'" Boggan said.

A few school boards have policies allowing district staff several days to fulfill a public records request. Tom Troy of The (Toledo) Blade said Karen Dameron, treasurer of the Wauseon Exempted Villages Schools in northwest Ohio's Fulton County, read him a school district policy stating that a public records request had to be made five days in advance. She said the board adopted the policy on the advice of NEOLA Inc., a company based in Stow that is paid to assist school districts in developing bylaws and policies.

Troy said the office was understaffed when he made his request and that Dameron e-mailed him the records the next day. But he said he found it troubling the district had adopted a policy that conflicts with the law.

"It's clearly not allowed by the law," he said. "It wasn't enforced in my case, and she never told me I would have to wait that long. But it made me wonder if they enforce it selectively."

Wauseon School Superintendent Marc Robinson said the five-day provision is intended to be the maximum time for providing public records access.

"We are going to make every effort to provide access as quickly as possible," he said.

Rick Dickinson, general counsel for the Ohio School Boards Association, said he doesn't believe school districts should adopt specific waiting periods for public records access.

"I wouldn't recommend there be an automatic waiting period. A court might not think that a five-day delay is reasonable for some records," he said.

Editor's note: This is the second in a four-part series on a public records audit conducted by The Associated Press.