Taxpayers have the right to know how their local schools spend their hard-earned dollars.
Unfortunately, many open record laws provide public schools (and all government entities) various loopholes to avoid sharing public information with the public. And some schools are very adept at employing those loopholes.
EAGnews.org recently sent freedom of information requests to hundreds of randomly selected public school districts across America, asking for financial records pertaining to restaurant food purchases, travel spending and compensation for top administrators in fiscal 2016-17.
Dozens of schools officials followed the law and complied, and many went out of their way to be helpful, even when they were exposing spending figures that might not be favorably received by the public.
But many others cited various legal loopholes and refused to cooperate, or attached ridiculous costs that most average citizens could not afford to pay.
One example of the latter comes from the Greenfield Union School District in Bakersfield, California. District officials said we would have to pay $954.24 to fill our first request, for school travel spending information. Then they said it would cost a whopping $5,172 to fill our second request, for restaurant spending information.
Officials from the New Haven, California school district said it would take approximately 22.5 hours, at an incredible $45 per hour, to fill our request – with an additional $67.50 fee for copies of the records.
The total cost estimate was $1,080. Again we declined.
Amarillo, Texas school officials said it would take approximately 60 hours at $15 per hour to gather and deliver the records indicating what they spent on restaurant food and travel. That came to $900, and along with an $18 copy fee and a $180 “incidental cost of labor” fee, the total came to $1,098.
The school district wanted a down payment of $549 to begin the work. Thanks, but no thanks.
Some of the responses we received made us wonder about the record-keeping habits of many school districts.
With the availability of spreadsheets and other useful computer programs, it seems like public schools should have their financial information available at the push of a few keyboard buttons – if they bother to keep track of it.
But apparently some don’t. We sent a slightly different type of request to the Jefferson County school district in Louisville, Kentucky, seeking information regarding individual teacher salaries and benefits. The request was made following the general teacher strike that occurred in Kentucky a few months ago.
Officials at the huge school district said they don’t keep records of teacher salaries and benefits.
“We do not maintain any existing records which meet the criteria of your request,” the district responded. “Additionally, our data is not maintained in a manner that allows us to generate a report of the information you have requested. For this reason, we are not able to provide you with any records responsive to this request.”
Apparently the Fort Wayne, Indiana school district does not keep track of how much its employees spend on restaurant food.
“After consulting with our purchasing and finance departments, we do not have a record that is responsive to your request pertaining to food purchased by the district from outside restaurants/catering services,” the district wrote in an email.
One bizarre response came from the Mansfield Independent School District in Mansfield, Texas. Note that one word of the school’s official name is definitely “district.”
We asked for records pertaining to “district travel.” We asked for records pertaining to “food purchased by the district.”
But Mansfield school officials apparently did not understand that our requests were directed to them.
“You also used the term ‘district,” the district wrote in an email. “Please identify which individuals or groups in which you seek records.”
One of the most frustrating responses we received came from the Wayne Township, Indiana school district. We thought we were very clear in our request. We simply wanted to know how much money the district spend on restaurant food in 2016-17.
But Wayne officials sent us the following response:
“Your request is not reasonably particular. There is no reasonable way the school could identify, search, and locate all the records that would be included within the broad parameters in your request. While Wayne has an affirmative duty to search for records, they are only obligated to do so after a reasonably specific set of documents have been identified.”
How are we supposed to know what sort of specific documents the school district maintains, pertaining to restaurant purchases? We light-heartedly asked if the district provides a menu of its documents, so we could identify the exact ones we needed to request.
The district did not respond.