Gerber: Putting the public back in public records

Gerber: Putting the public back in public records

May 21st, 2017 by Alison Gerber in Opinion Columns

Hamilton County's public school leaders are engaging in a disturbing pattern of behavior that obstructs attempts by the media and community from accessing public documents.

Over the last several months, the Times Free Press has requested two sets of public records, one from the Hamilton County Department of Education and another from the Board of Education.

Both times, they charged what seemed to be an excessive amount of money for records about the safety of school bus drivers and the search for the district's next superintendent — information the public certainly has the right to know.

Alison Gerber

Alison Gerber

Photo by Staff File Photo /Times Free Press.

The first request, made in the wake of the tragic Woodmore Elementary School bus crash, was for complaints against bus drivers in the past five years. After it was revealed that a student, parents and even the principal had complained about the driving of Johnthony Walker — who was at the wheel during the fatal crash — and that some of those complaints were not shared with Durham School Services, the company that operates buses for Hamilton County, it seemed obvious to review records to see if complaints had been launched about any other drivers.

As reporter Kendi Rainwater wrote in an email to Amy Katcher, communications director for Hamilton County Schools: "We think it is in the best interest of the public to know what complaints were made against bus drivers and which of these complaints were shared with Durham."

Frankly, we assumed the school district would be doing the same thing and that the records therefore wouldn't be hard to pull. Again, it seems like an obvious step. It wasn't.

Instead, Katcher said it would cost $1,903 to pay for school district employees to gather the records.

We amended the request in an attempt to work reasonably with the district to lower the cost of the records. We limited our request to one year of records, instead of five, assuming that would reduce the cost. However, Hamilton County Schools increased the cost of the records to $2,525.

Katcher said it would take 45 hours of work to gather the records (1,688 pages of complaints). We would be paying for the employee's hourly rate. The employee who would pull the records, Katcher said, earned $45 an hour — that's about $93,000 a year.

This also means that the complaints we requested were not compiled for the district or board to review, because if they were, the district is prohibited by law to charge us for the labor.

At that point, the paper asked only to inspect the complaints, so we could determine which of those pages to copy, which Hamilton County Schools has not allowed us to do. It seemed excessive to us to pay a $93,000-a-year employee to do the work.

We decided to seek an opinion from Ann Butterworth, Tennessee's open records counsel. Her office spoke to Katcher who told her when we changed our request, it "constitutes a commitment or agreement to the amount," according to Butterworth.

In a Dec. 27 email, Katcher wrote to Rainwater, "We had an implied contract with the tacit understanding that you would remit payment for the work to produce the requested information."

Basing an argument on "tacit" and "implied" probably means you're on shaky ground.

It also contradicts what Katcher wrote in other emails to Rainwater.

Her emails show that she clearly knew no such tacit agreement had taken place. In fact, she responded to the amended request, saying: "We have not yet received word that your organization is amendable [sic] to the payment due for the research you have requested. Please inform us as to whether the Times Free Press will comply before we continue further work on your behalf."

Rainwater responded by saying the paper was not amenable to the cost and would like a more detailed breakdown of it. Based on this correspondence, Katcher clearly understood the paper never agreed to pay that price for the records and there was no tacit agreement.

Last week, the newspaper requested a different set of records — emails over a 10-day span from school board Chairman Steve Highlander about the superintendent search process.

The district charged $176 for 12 printed pages of emails (multiple pages were duplicates of the same correspondence). Yet the district claimed it took an employee six hours to pull these emails. Just to be clear, it took an employee who makes $34 an hour six hours to pull three email threads.

And we wonder why people ask questions about whether the central office is efficient and transparent.

I can assure you that in a private enterprise, those emails would have been pulled faster and probably by an employee making a far lower hourly rate.

The newspaper paid the $176 for the three mails, and in two of them Highlander asked fellow board members to not share the contents of the email. In one email, which went to all members of the school board, he implored, "Please do not break my confidence." In another, which went to board member Rhonda Thurman, he flat-out states: "I totally trust you not to send this to the media."

The problem here is that these are public records. The minute Highlander hits "send," he's created a public record. It's absurd that he would ask other public servants to keep the information confidential, especially about something as important as a superintendent search.

But his behavior mirrors that of the district — creating obstacles to keep the public from seeing public information. Charging exorbitant prices for information deters the public from asking for records, and a public official instructing other elected officials to keep public documents secret does not engender public trust. This behavior does not reassure people that the school district is acting in the public's best interest.

With the possibility of a new administration, we would urge the school board chairman and district leaders to rethink their approach and make sure their business is transparent and accessible. After all, they're doing the public's business.

Alison Gerber is editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Contact her at agerber@timesfreepress.com or @aligerb.

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