In late September, Y’allPolitics made a formal request of several Mississippi school districts and the MS Department of Education itself to determine the amount of outside coordination that groups such as Better Schools Better Jobs has had with government employees around Initiative 42. While the meat of those results will come shortly, the response from the Desoto County School District was singularly fascinating.
We had asked for emails from district employees that involved the text string “Initiative 42” and any email to or from folks at Better Schools.
Now most agencies complied. Lauderdale County was a great example of a group that worked through issues in good faith with Y’allPolitics to be transparent. It was a fair amount of data, but they dutifully and timely complied with the request and sent digital files or thumbdrives with the information. However, Keith Treadway, counsel for Desoto County School District said that they would comply, but only if they printed out the over 16,000 pages of emails and charged $.25/page plus shipping. That totaled over $10,000. Even after appeal (to common sense), the district stood firm on their decision. It’s clear that the barrier created was an artificial one to simply scare off a group evaluating transparency and legal compliance. Three of the other requests we made were fulfilled for about $600 each.
The fact that our query triggered that much response added to the fact that the school district erected a massive barrier should tell you how scared some of these districts are about the results being public.
State law is super clear when it comes to public records.
MS Code 25-61-2 is EXTREMELY clear. It says . . . providing access to public records is a duty of each public body and automation of public records must not erode the right of access to those records. As each public body increases its use of, and dependence on, electronic record keeping, each public body must ensure reasonable access to records electronically maintained, subject to records retention.
Also 25-61-7(2) which states, A public body may establish a standard fee scale to reimburse it for the costs of creating, acquiring and maintaining a geographic information system or multipurpose cadastre as authorized and defined under Section 25-61-1 et seq., or any other electronically accessible data. Such fees must be reasonably related to the cost of creating, acquiring and maintaining the geographic information system, multipurpose cadastre or other electronically accessible data, for the data or information contained therein or taken therefrom and for any records, papers, accounts, maps, photographs, films, cards, tapes, recordings or other materials, data or information relating thereto, whether in printed, digital or other format. In determining the fees or charges under this subsection, the public body may consider the type of information requested, the purpose or purposes for which the information has been requested and the commercial value of the information.
In short, the public is entitled to reasonable access to the information in the form it is kept, which, in this case is digitally. It is the height of foolishness to erect such an unreasonable barrier.
If the only way that a school district can generate emails to the public is to print them, it’s pretty hard to say that there’s not massive waste in the administration of school districts that could easily find its way into the classrooms.