CAFI Report: Some Florida School Districts Need Schooling on Public Records

filespicBy Cathy Zollo

Citizens Awareness Foundation’s main mission is to educate the public about its rights regarding records. It does that through public records education and its own investigations that use public records to expose wrongdoing and to enhance the public good.

In the course of those investigations, we also learn how public servants address – or fail to address – records requests.

Recently, while investigating a number of schools-related issues, the foundation sent two public records requests to every school district in the state. These public records requests sought information for these investigations and were also a trial balloon to gauge the response of each district to the requests and determine if districts are appropriately addressing such requests.

We asked for records politely, in writing — which is not required by Florida Statute 119 that governs public records access — and in accordance with what state agencies are required to provide under Florida law. For the first request, we asked for a list of agencies that provide school resource officers – law enforcement personnel who work on school campuses. For the second, we asked for the details of any settlement agreements that the districts had taken part in, not including workers compensation issues – in other words, the results of lawsuits or settled lawsuits.

The response from the 67 school districts covered a wide spectrum. Some entities treated us respectfully, responded almost immediately with the requested records for little or no charge and followed up to make sure we had received what we needed. Others took their time, had staff who acted inconvenienced or simply broke the law.

A few districts stood out in their willingness to not only provide records but did so quickly and cheaply. Standouts among these are Osceola County, whose staff responded almost immediately with an acknowledgement of our request and, after redacting and compiling the records, followed it three weeks later with a final email, records attached. Tiny Wakulla County delivered the records via a Dropbox, the most advanced, user friendly, inexpensive delivery method we saw.

As for school personnel and how they treated us, the vast majority were polite even when they were asking us for thousands of dollars to cough up records. A few, most notably the director of communications and government relations for Pasco County Schools, were obviously put out by our request. When we asked this public servant to actually produce the contracts with law enforcement agencies rather than sending us to the web with a link and some instructions, we were met with obvious frustration on her part when she wrote back that, “The records are available on the website, and the law does not require that we produce them in a specified format.”

We politely corrected this administrative officer about the law she is being paid to abide by. We asked for her to produce the records not to be difficult but because the law states that, “An agency must provide a copy of the record in the medium requested if the agency maintains the record in that medium.” FS 119.01 (2) (f).

This public servant also failed to understand other points of law, including the mandate that public records requesters be charged the hourly rate of the lowest paid person who can perform the task – in this case searching for and printing records. Our correction to this person and subsequent insistence on receiving the records got this reply: “If they are kept in another medium, I estimate it will take one hour of my time at $44.41 per hour to retrieve the contracts.”

Agencies are permitted to charge requesters for certain things. Florida Statute 119 states that they can charge $.15 for copies or $.20 for two-sided copies and staff time needed to redact and/or compile the records. The staff time must be charged at the rate of the lowest paid worker capable of the job at that agency. Despite this aspect of the law, the foundation was quoted hourly rates that ranged from $13 an hour to $200 an hour to redact and compile settlement agreement records.

The cost estimates ranged from free, with records sent out within a week or ten days to almost $8,000 from Seminole County, all of which was due before the district would begin to compile the records. One response from Broward Schools was a dizzying array of emails – nine to be exact – outlining a variety of charges and corrections that would confuse Carl Sagan, let alone a curious and well-meaning member of the public.

Other districts that also charged what on their face looked like excessive fees – especially considering that several districts provided their records for free – were:

Hillsborough School District — $2,332.50

Orange County School District — $2,187.84

Miami-Dade Schools — $1,950

Citrus County School District — $1,794.45

Duval County Schools — $1,615.38

Leon County Schools — $1,050

Pinellas County Schools — $807.35

Alachua Schools — 723.24

Obviously, fees such as these appear excessive on their face, but more importantly, they have a chilling effect on public records access. It’s reasonable to assume, at least in some cases, that’s exactly the intent.

We learned that, mostly by region, smaller school districts share expenses and farm out their legal and other service needs to consortia that in turn outsource the work. We also learned that these arrangements may cause public records access roadblocks because they raise questions about who owns the records and whether they are subject to FS 119. It also raised questions about what the entities can charge for public records.

It is clear that these consortia and the professionals they hire must study Florida’s public records law and understand their responsibility under it to provide records in an efficient and professional manner at a reasonable cost.

The same can be said for many of Florida’s school districts. There is an obvious and wide-ranging need for public records education for the school district staff. These are public servants who are paid with tax dollars. They must understand that members of the public are customers and that providing them with public records is part of the job.

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