Darien school board threatens to publish log of FOI requests
DARIEN — The Darien Board of Education is considering publishing a log of Freedom of Information Act requests after the number of requests for public information more than quadrupled in the past school year, costing the district tens of thousands of dollars.
Thomas Mooney of Shipman and Goodwin, who acts as the district’s attorney, explained FOI process and procedure and what impact requests under this law have had on the district during an Aug. 22 school board meeting. FOI laws, Mooney said, allow the public to gain access to any information that may be considered public business, including school-related emails and files.
According to Mooney, in the 2014-15 school year, the district received six FOI requests and in the 2015-16 school year, they received eight requests. But in the recently-concluded school year, the district received 33 FOI requests. Since the start of the 2017-18 school year in July, Mooney said they’ve already received 13 requests.
“Responding to this large number of (FOI) requests has been costly, both in terms of staff time and legal charges, and given those significant costs and burdens, the Board scheduled this workshop,” Superintendent Dan Brenner said in a statement issued the day after the Aug. 22 meeting.
Some of those requests have come from The Darien News, including ones for the superintendent’s evaluation, 15,000 board emails, executive session meeting minutes and footage of the game where Darien football coach Rob Trifone struck a player. The Darien News also reached an agreement with the school board after filing a complaint with the FOI Commission accusing the board of failing to follow the proper procedures to enter into executive sessions.
Mooney said the district has received the majority of their requests over the past year from Darien resident Jay Hardison. According to Mooney, Hardison made 24 FOI requests since last September, 16 of which referenced Trifone. In one case, Hardison made four separate requests with a 15-day period, including ones for all invoices related to updating Darien High School security cameras over two years and hundreds of emails related to Trifone.
Trifone was under fire over the past year and was suspended numerous times for striking a student on the football field and then violating the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) by revealing confidential information about a student. The latter was revealed through documents received through one of Hardison’s FOI requests.
“This entire saga began with Trifone hitting the student,” Hardison said. “Thus, getting information about the administration’s and board’s related actions necessarily involved finding out what happened regarding Trifone. What has transpired since has nothing to do with Trifone. But it has everything to do with with the administration and board. I believe, when the breadth and depth of this scandal are made known, it is going to shock people - in this town and nationally.”
Normally, the cost of processing FOI requests are “modest” according to Mooney, but Hardison’s requests have cost the district over $87,000 in legal expenses, as well hundred of hours of staff time. Mooney said all other FOI requests from the same year cost the district around $20,000.
“These requests have costs on the board,” Mooney said. “Those costs are not only the cost of the related legal review, but those costs are the burden on staff as the staff deals with a number of FOI requests.”
Mooney added that Hardison filed five complaints with the FOI Commission since September 2016. One was later withdrawn, but the other four are pending rulings from the Commission. The Commission also recently denied a request from Hardison that the pending cases be reopened and retried, sparing the district further costs.
The board suggested adding an online log of FOI requests would increase transparency, especially if the requests are going to be costing people so much money. Concerns were raised about the log discouraging people from making requests, but the board decided to move forward with a sample log in their next meeting to see how it goes.
“We don’t want to discourage parents from getting information on children,” said Vice Chairperson Elizabeth Hagerty-Ross. “It’s not about the dollar amount because it’s public information... The issue is how much time is being taken away from getting ready for school because you’re spending an enormous amount of time redacting and pulling emails for one individual? Our job is to protect all children and this hurts all children. The log lets people know what other things are being worked on, but it’s a distraction.”
Tom Hennick, a public education officer at the FOI Commission, agreed multiple requests from the same person speaks to a problem but emphasized the importance of solving the underlying issue.
“If they all came from the same person, it’s a problem,” Hennick said. “Something has been lost in the communication. People get an issue and believe passionately in what they’re doing. Sometimes it falls on the public agency to sort it out.”
Moving forward, there is nothing the board can do to cut back on the number of FOI requests, because it is public information.
“Problems come and problems go,” Mooney said. “We’re in the middle of a significant FOI issue. I have no idea if we’re at the end of it, still at the beginning or in the middle. I don’t want to overstate this as an ongoing issue, but it’s a significant issue right now.”
Mooney said requests related to FERPA are particularly difficult, because under the act, schools are required to maintain the confidentiality of students. Mooney used the example of requests for emails being particularly strenuous because of the volume and sensitive information in them that needs to be censored.
“It could be nuts and likely will be nuts because they’d have to review those emails,” he said. “We have a duty to go through all these emails.”
Hardison was not present at the meeting, but when asked about the presentation, he said he was comfortable with it and liked the idea of an FOI log.
“I have absolutely no problem with it,” he said. “I support their effort to make the (FOI log) public...and have told the board that a week or so ago.
“Of course, it’s an intimidation tactic to discourage others from coming forward to expose wrongdoing, and that’s a shame, but I’m fine with it,” Hardison added.