Board of Ed, admin continue talks on FOIA requests
On Tuesday night, Board of Education counsel Tom Mooney was present once again to facilitate discussions on the creation of a public log of Freedom of Information Act requests. A number of town leaders have had similar discussions about making FOI request logs public. The Board of Education has to face the challenges of noted increases in the number of requests over the past year, and the need to keep student information private in compliance with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. A draft policy was provided as a jumping off point for the discussion.
Mooney began the discussion by offering some background from the last discussion, which primarily dealt with the large volume of requests, the fees and hours it takes to fulfill them, and the ways in which the board and administration can respond. Mooney, along with Superintendent Dr. Dan Brenner, pointed out that in fact, a FOIA request log is already being kept. The massive jump in requests, from six two years ago to over 30 last school year, necessitated the creation of a log so the administration could adequately fill all the requests.
“Maintaining a log is not question before the board, that’s just good practice. The thrust is whether the board will be authorizing the superintendent to post, on the district website, the FOI log,” Mooney said.
The obligation of the board and administration, Mooney said, was the analyze the requested information and make sure that it properly complies with FERPA protections.
“Sometimes it’s not enough to remove a name, but the information itself,” Mooney said.
Board member David Dineen pointed out that the policy would actually be the maintaining of two logs. The log that is currently kept internally contains information that is FERPA protected, and the log available to public would obviously have that information redacted.
Board member Katie Stein asked whether this log was something simply made available upon request or something that is posted on the district website, as the draft policy suggested.
More than that, would the log be something updated and looked at monthly, quarterly, or even yearly. Stein also pointed that most school districts do not have a public FOIA log. At the local level, requests logs are fairly rare, while at the federal level they are much more common.
Board member Michael Burke elaborated on Stein’s comments, saying the log would not necessarily be an up to the minute type of document. “The idea to me isn’t to show everything going on every minute, but rather to provide a window to our constituency to a series of events,” Burke said.
Part of this discussion also circled the issue about the volume of requests.
Board member Tara Ochman pointed out that the discussion previously had dealt with ways to address the large spike in requests.
“People have been FOIA’ing FOIA’s just to see what someone FOIA’d. That alone is taking up enormous staff time and legal fees. The idea behind the log was to sort of stop the insanity and give you what you want,” Ochman said.
Ochman also pointed out that this process is being talked about to make it abundantly clear to people that the board has nothing to hide.
Most of the members of the board also asked that any log contain measurable data as far as volume goes. This would mean the amount of data requested, the legal fees required to satisfy the request, the hours spent to fill the request, and the way those things could be taking away from the duties those administrators are charged with otherwise.
This addressed portions of the discussion at a previous board meeting which focused a great deal on the requests of Jay Hardison, an RTM member who made over 20 FOIA requests last year. Those requests cost the town $87,000 in legal fees alone to fill, and Mooney estimated over 300 hours of work which would go double for the administrators who fill the requests. At the public comment portion of the Sept. 12 meeting, fellow RTM member and Education Committee Chairman Dennis Maroney called the last meeting a bullying tactic. Maroney did also say he would be in favor of a public log, but did not think the purpose of the log or the discussion was to single out an individual.
Maroney has been endorsed by the Republican Town Committee as a candidate for the Board of Education for this November’s election, choosing to not re-up current chairman Michael Harman.
Board member Jill McCammon said later in the meeting that, “the situation we’re in has had significant community impact. As we talk about it we run the risk of being accused of being a bully, but if we don’t talk about it we’re at risk for being called non-transparent.”
A number of questions remained as the discussion came to a close. The names of the requesters being published was still undecided. The draft policy contained language saying that requests made by current students or parents would not be listed in the FOIA log when they related to the student so as to comply with FERPA. The question as to whether or not the log would be published on the district website or simply made available upon request was also undecided, though it did seem as though the board was leaning heavily towards not publishing, but simply having a log available upon request outside of the FOIA process to ensure rapid response.
While other town agencies have come out in favor of a published log, the Board of Education has a much more fine line to walk. FERPA protections would make the creation of a public log a tremendously arduous task, as it takes much more than simply removing names to adequately protect all parties. Efforts to be transparent are continuing as the board looks for ways to make the log public and accessible, while still holding those legal protections sacred.