Oxford’s Board of Education discussed potential options to help balance the increased workload created by the high number of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests being filed with the district.
This item was added to the July 25 meeting agenda by Trustee Tom Donnelly, who had recently requested a report to show the number of hours spent fulfilling FOIA requests by district staff over the last six months. He filed it with Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Nancy Latowski, who serves as the district’s FOIA coordinator.
According to Latowski’s report, there have been 19 FOIA requests filed with the district since January 1, 2017. More than 32 hours were logged by employees in research and evaluation time to fulfill these requests.
Michigan’s FOIA law, enacted in 1976, allows citizens to request access to records from any public body in the state, including school districts. It gives citizens the right to inspect, copy or receive public records.
According to district officials, there have been a high number of FOIA requests filed with the district over the last two years, with many of those requests having been filed by members of Truth in Education Accountability in Management 20 Years (TEAM 20).
This prompted Donnelly to ask the board whether there could be a more effective way to handle incoming FOIA requests. He also wanted to ensure the district is charging appropriate fees to those filing requests.
Latowski told Donnelly the district is currently charging FOIA fees in accordance with state laws and Michigan Association of School Boards (MASB) guidelines.
According to Michigan.gov and Latowski, public bodies shall not charge more than the hourly wage of its lowest-paid employee capable of searching for, locating, and examining the public records in the particular instance regardless of whether that person is available or who actually performs the labor.
FOIA requests that take 15 minutes or less to complete are typically free of charge, according to Latowski.
All FOIA fees collected by the district go into its general fund budget under the “miscellaneous” account, according to Assistant Superintendent of Business and Operations Sam Barna.
“Under normal circumstances, (the district doesn’t) get a lot of FOIAs . . . (That was) up until, I would say, a couple of years ago,” Latowski told Donnelly. “When you get bombarded with FOIAs, yes, it does consume time. I would say those minutes should be tracked much closer…We’ve talked about really doing more tracking on (the time each FOIA request takes) because it does take away from what we’re trying to accomplish (as a district).”
During the meeting, Donnelly suggested the creation of a subcommittee of board members which could act as a “first point of contact” with the public and help to better handle FOIA requests, while allowing school administrators to focus more on their work for the district.
Vice President Joyce Brasington said she did not see the value of a subcommittee, as the school board is not involved in the day-to-day operations of the district and this would hinder its ability to effectively deal with FOIA requests.
“The FOIA requests that have come in, they’re very involved. The board doesn’t know the answer off the top of their heads,” Brasington said. “It really involves a (school administrator). I don’t think a subcommittee would be of any use. I just don’t know how a subcommittee could handle some of the initial requests that come up through these FOIAs.”
Trustee Heather Shafer agreed.
“I feel like it would not be a (valuable addition) at all,” Shafer said. “We’re really talking about one group of people here that have been (making) these FOIA (requests) and they don’t want to talk to somebody. It’s the elephant in the room. TEAM 20 is not interested in a discussion opportunity. They want documentation and they want to go through it with their fine-toothed comb.”
Between April 2015 and November 2016, 39 FOIA requests were filed through the district, Latowski said during a November 2016 interview with this reporter.
During that time, five of those FOIA requests were filed by Oxford resident Kallie Roesner, who serves as one of the group’s leaders; one was filed by Oxford resident Larry Roesner; 26 were filed by “TEAM 20 FOIA coordinator;” one was filed by “Oxford citizen and Kallie Roesner,” and six of those requests were signed by “Oxford citizen.”
Latowski was unable to be reached for updated statistics regarding the number of recent FOIA requests filed by members of TEAM 20.
Secretary Mark Stepek agreed that a subcommittee would likely be ineffective.
“(Filing FOIA requests) is within their right. I agree that, as a school board member, although we’re all smart people, we really don’t have the answers that are coming up in the FOIA requests,” Stepek said. “There are probably more FOIA requests in the last two years than the entire history of (the district). We’re (involved in) an (anomalous) situation where we just have to deal with it the best we can.”
While Latowski said the district has been charging hourly FOIA fees appropriately, she admitted that she will make an effort to better track hours spent in research and other FOIA-related activities to ensure adequate fees are being charged moving forward.
“I think it’s going to take a little more caution in terms of tracking that time,” Latowski said. “(We need) to be as transparent as we can with the information that we have and I think we have been quite transparent over the last few years. We have a lot (of information) on our website that other districts do not and . . . we operate with integrity. So, if there’s someone who can fulfill that work (who) is not top-high salary, that’s who will do it. That’s important to me.”
School Board President Dan D’Alessandro said he wants to ensure that administrators are fulfilling the needs of the district’s staff and students while also providing information to the public, as state law requires.
“I want to make sure, as we’re charging (FOIA fees) appropriately, that we’re not costing the district (administration) excess time (and taking) away from other things that are our Number One priority. Educating students, balancing the budget, making sure our staff’s concerns are taken care of (with) regards to (human resources),” D’Alessandro said. “I also want the community to know that we take (FOIA requests) seriously… I want to make sure that we’re doing things the right way every single time. (We need to) make sure that we’re keeping an eye on those FOIAs that are coming in and (ensuring) that (the charges) are appropriate, I think that’s the best way that we can go about it right now.”