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Accountability for public agencies via the Public Records Act

Note from Laurie Rogers:

Records from Washington State government agencies are accessible to the people via the Public Records Act, a law that was passed in 1974 by the people and for the people. Many government agencies, including Spokane Public Schools, have made concerted efforts over several years to undermine the Public Records Act.

A January 2011 records request of mine produced approximately 800 records regarding Spokane Public School's levies. A July 2011 request produced records on then-school board candidate Deana Brower.

In September 2011, some of these records led to a complaint with the Public Disclosure Commission. The PDC was asked to investigate whether school district administrators violated RCW 42.17.130, which concerned Disclosure, Campaign Finances, and Lobbying, and which forbid the use of a public office or public agency facilities in elective campaigns. (In February 2014, the PDC did find that several employees violated RCW 42.17.)

In February 2012, I filed a lawsuit to obtain records the district did not provide in response to the January 2011 request on the levies. From February 2012 through September 2013, in response to this lawsuit, the district provided eight more installments containing tens of thousands of records.
In 2012, the district estimated its costs to comply with public records requests in 2011 at approximately $66,000. However, the district appears to have come up with arbitrary percentages of the salaries of five personnel.

A year later, the district said its estimated costs for 2012 had jumped exponentially, to $350,000. It did not provide details of that $350,000 estimate to anyone. After a citizen requested a breakdown from the district, it turns out that the district had again simply provided estimates of a few district salaries, but also lumped legal fees into the mix.

The district's questionable decision to include legal fees in an estimate of district costs to respond to records requests in 2012 essentially inflated the district's estimate by almost $300,000.

Meanwhile, the firm cited for those legal costs (Stevens Clay) says it doesn't itemize its expenses for specific cases. When asked to provide a breakdown of legal costs for my lawsuit, the firm provided summaries only, such as this one for July-August 2012, with a total at the bottom.

How does anyone know how much the legal fees were for public records requests? How did the district arrive at its estimates for legal fees for public records requests in 2012?

Meanwhile, reading only the letters that district lawyer Paul Clay wrote and sent to my legal team, one would never know that I am an honest, well-intentioned person, that my motives are honorable, or that my lawyers and I did everything we could to respond swiftly and accurately to the district and to resolve the issues. Reading only Paul Clay's letters, one might buy the district refrain that administrators are innocent victims of abusive requestors.

You wouldn't know that this school district appears to have purposefully made the records process and the legal process as difficult and expensive as they possibly could.
Some of the correspondence between district lawyers and Laurie Rogers's legal team
  • July 31, 2013, letter from Paul Clay, a lawyer for the school district, to Michele Earl-Hubbard and Cheryl Mitchell, expressing complaints and making accusations about what we supposedly did and didn't do.
    • Aug. 20, 2013, letter from Michele Earl-Hubbard to Paul Clay, defending against the accusations, and setting the record straight
  • Aug. 31, 2013, letter from Paul Clay to Michele Earl-Hubbard and Cheryl Mitchell, again making accusations.
    • Sept. 9, 2013, letter from Cheryl Mitchell to Paul Clay, defending against the accusations, and setting the record straight.
    • In this letter, we accept the district's August offer of settlement.
  • Sept. 11, 2013, letter from Paul Clay to Cheryl Mitchell, again making accusations.
    • Oct. 28, 2013, letter from Cheryl Mitchell to Paul Clay, defending against the accusations and setting the record straight.
  • Dec. 4, 2013, letter from Paul Clay to Cheryl Mitchell, again making accusations.
    • Dec. 11, 2013, email from Michele Earl-Hubbard to Paul Clay (offered here with permission) telling him she would not respond to him further about the case and that she would not be drawn into "an apparent vendetta the District personnel may have against Mrs. Rogers or the desire to have the last word." She also wrote that her unwillingness to respond further did not denote agreement.
    • Feb. 14, 2014, letter from Cheryl Mitchell to Paul Clay, defending against the accusations, setting the record straight, and saying that she would not respond further, and that her unwillingness to respond further did not denote agreement.

Other records regarding Spokane Public Schools vs. the Public Records Act

The board of Spokane Public Schools also appears to have spent a great deal of time and effort attempting to undermine the Public Records Act and to make it much more difficult -- if not completely impossible -- for citizens to know what this school district is doing with our children and our tax dollars.

2012: Spokane Public Schools Board of Directors' 2012 Legislative Priorities -
The school board attempted to push through legislation that would charge citizens the costs to compile records. This priority, and the subsequent legislation pushed by Senator Lisa Brown over Super Bowl weekend, would have placed the PRA, where it comes to school districts, out of reach of most citizens in Washington State. Thankfully, that legislation (SB 6576) failed.
2013: Spokane Public Schools Board of Directors' 2013 Legislative Priorities -
The school board again attempted to undermine the Public Records Act. This time, the goals were to charge requestors the costs to collect records, to eliminate requestors' right to remain anonymous, to force requestors to go through a in-district appeals process, and to allow for executive sessions to go unrecorded.
In this email, she promises "improvements" in the district's responses to records requestors.

Laurie Rogers's blog articles about the Public Records Act

Oct. 1, 2011: Public records prompt PDC complaint re: Spokane Public Schools

Oct. 9, 2011: Accountability, transparency desperately needed for education expenditures

Oct. 13, 2011: Hire board director who's accountable to you, not beholden to district, union

Oct. 21, 2011: District distributes campaign material to students and community

Oct. 25, 2011: Newspapers neglect critical information about PDC issues

Oct. 31, 2011: Vote for those whose allegiance is to the People

Nov. 8, 2011: PDC launches formal investigation regarding Spokane Public Schools

Dec. 28, 2011: Paper declines to inform voters about critical school-district election issues

Feb. 15, 2012: Leadership seems filled with predators, sheep. Where are the sheepdogs?

April 15, 2012: In defense of public-records requesters

May 31, 2012: Hold education bureaucracy accountable, or lose your right to do it

June 10, 2012: School district budget forums showcase half-truths, contempt for the public

July 17, 2012: Several school leaders refuse to say why district is adopting unproven products on top of already failed products; board president points to state

Jan. 24, 2013: Spokane school board attempting to undermine Public Records Act for everyone in Washington State

Feb. 16, 2013: Public Records Act: Speak up for your rights now, before they're gone

Feb. 16, 2013: See Cheryl Mitchell's legal analysis of HB 1128:

Feb. 16, 2013: Analysis of Substitute House Bill 1128, which would essentially gut the Public Records Act

Nov. 11, 2013: Spokane print media failing all of us, especially the children

February 20, 2014: What's in the records? Here's one: An email string between the associate superintendent and Citizens for Spokane Schools, a local levy group

February 24, 2014: Some of the records the PDC cited in its Report of Investigation regarding Case #12-145 on Spokane Public Schools

February 22, 2014: Some of the other records sent to the PDC regarding Spokane Public Schools election activity

March 1, 2014: Legislature should look into the PDC's investigation of Spokane Public Schools
A PDF of this March 1, 2014 article is here.


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