LPOSD hit with records requests

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(File photo by MARY MALONE) The Lake Pend Oreille School District has seen a large increase in public records requests this fiscal year for a total of 132 since July.

PONDERAY — Since July, the Lake Pend Oreille School District has been inundated with public records requests — 132 as of Feb. 1 to be exact.

Public records requests are the right of citizens to keep informed about what is going on in governing entities, but district officials said the time to process those requests, on top of the cost of printing and legal fees, can be taxing on staff.

"Since July 1, hundreds of hours have been spent in response to these (requests)," said district superintendent Shawn Woodward.

The district lists the requests on their website and according to those records, 117 of the public records requests have been made by a local couple, Kathy and Dan Rose. Dan Rose responded to the Daily Bee's inquiries by email Thursday and said, "transparency has a cost of zero dollars and fosters community goodwill."

"There is an 'opportunity cost' relating to distrust and intentional deceit involving administrative and operational practices," Rose wrote. "That cost is all that is associated to righteous inquiry by means of document requests, supported by a 64-percent rejection of levy votes. LPOSD's malfeasant management has only itself to blame."

The 64-percent rejection of levy votes Rose referred to is in regards to the failed $55 million plant facilities levy in August.

"Lake Pend Oreille School District has tried, and has made it a top priority, to be as transparent as possible," said Lisa Hals, chief financial and operations officer for the district.

Among those efforts, she said, are a willingness to post information on the district's website as per requests by community members. Some of these requests include recording board meetings, putting the videos online and using microphones during meetings. All presentations and information related to the supplemental levy is posted on the district website as well.

The district's external audits can be found on the district's website, which Hals said was done prior to legislation requiring it. Even with A-plus external audits, which are "as clean as you can get," Hals said, there is still a distrust of the district by some community members.

The list of public records requests posted on the website is not unique to the district, said Kelly Fisher, LPOSD clerk of the board of trustees. Requests can be found online for Idaho's Blaine County School District as well, which Fisher believes is the next highest number of public records requests for districts in the state. In the same time period as LPOSD has received 132, the Blaine district has received about 40 requests for public records.

Due to the amount of requests, the district added a line item to the upcoming supplemental levy ballot of $5,000 per year to cover the cost. Woodward said at this rate, $5,000 will not cover the hours needed to fill the requests, as the time associated with the requests is more of a concern than the actual cost and hinders staff from performing the regular duties required by their position.

"Different school systems have had records requests kind of similar to this and have had to hire people to accommodate those requests as well, just so they could stay compliant," Woodward said. "There was a complaint at the last board meeting that the minutes weren't being done on time and things like that, but the fact of the matter is these requests are putting our employees behind on some of their normal job tasks, because these things have to get done within a certain time frame."

As per statute, public records requests must be completed in three days, or 10 days with an extension. Fisher has been required to use the 10-day extension on many of the requests this year. By law, she is required to stop at two hours or 100 pages per request, whichever comes first, but she said an average time and cost of public records requests would be difficult to determine because each one is unique.

"A lot of times, even if it's a simple request, I still have to go out to the majority of all schools and different departments to get that information," Fisher said. "It's not just my time."

After a request has reached the maximum time or pages, the requester can continue with the request, but they might be handed a bill for the overage costs. Fisher said the Roses have asked to be notified when it reaches the maximum if the request is not complete, giving them the option to continue. So far, she said, they have not chosen to continue.

The largest of these requests was made by Dan Rose in January for the entirety of Woodward's emails from 2016. The request was denied in part due to privileged information that may be contained in the emails. As certain information is not subject to public record, such as employee personnel information, each email would have to be screened before it was released. During preliminary research for the request, staff found that Woodward sent and received 24,544 emails throughout the year.

In a partial denial response to Rose, the scope of the request was outlined and included an estimated cost of $13,209.05 to compile the data.

In the preliminary estimate, the process could include 30 technology hours at $27.51 per hour for a total of $825; board clerk hours were estimated at 409 hours at $19 per hour for a total of $7,771; 15 administrative hours at $67.85 per hour totalled $1,017.75; and 15 legal counsel hours at $185 per hour would total $2,775. The 409 board clerk hours were estimated as the total after the two free hours provided. Finally, the number of pages for the request was estimated at 16,500, less the 100 free pages bringing the total to 16,400. At $.05 per page, the cost was estimated at $820.

Public records requests often require legal advice, and Woodward said when a request is denied or partially denied it has to come with a legal response.

"To my knowledge there have been at least three lengthy legal responses," Hals said. "I mean, they aren't one-page responses."

Fisher added that the legal responses can be up to seven pages long.

Fisher said the Idaho School Board Association supplies the district with four hours of legal counsel and she has already used all four, which is equivalent to $186 if billed directly by ISBA. So far this fiscal year the district has spent $259 on attorney fees in addition to the four free hours provided provide by ISBA, for a total of $445 in legal advice on public records requests.

Rose said the "exaggerated" $10,000 expense over two years for public records proposed on the supplemental levy is "insignificant compared to discoveries of deceit related to both a $17 million and $55 million expense to the taxpayer." The levy going to voters in March is distinct from the plant facilities levy. The failed August levy went to voters for the purpose of rebuilding and remodeling aging district facilities, and the upcoming supplemental levy covers one-third of all district operations and replaces a current levy.

The current levy, with a two-year amount of $15,767,484 expires at the end of the district's fiscal year in June. The proposed levy, at $17 million, is a $1.2 million increase over the current levy. Currently, the rate for taxpayers is $176 for every $100,000 of net taxable value on their home. The estimated rate over the next two years if the levy passes is $180 for the first year and $184 in the second year.

Rose referred the Daily Bee to lposdlevy.com, a levy opposition website where some of the information obtained through the public records request has been posted. He said the question of what the overall goal of the requests could be answered with another question of, "How was it discovered that ..." He said any “information concern” on the website could be inserted to finish the question. But he did include one of those findings in his email to the Daily Bee, that "$60,000 is spent for public employee bonuses to three LPOSD executives without any LPOSD bonus policy or transparency to the performance being rewarded."

On the flipside of the levy opposition website, the Citizens for Better Schools has a "vote yes" website for the levy at voteourschools.org with information on levy rates, what it would fund, where to vote and more.

The list of public records requests can be found on the district's website at lposd.org/board-of-trustees/public-records.

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