Monday, March 16, 2015

District 833 Data Request Conundrum - Part 1 of 3

The education children are receiving today may surprise most parents.  Many assume that if a school looks great from the outside, great things must be happening on the inside.  One thing is certain; we spend way too much money on education and the results are pathetic. It is estimated that the state of Minnesota will spend $17.7 billion on education in 2015.  Total spending in 2014 for South Washington School District 833 was over $250 million.  With such large amounts of cash flowing into local school districts, the opportunity for wasteful spending and misallocation of funds has proven to be too much of a temptation for many teachers and administrators.  
An article in the Star Tribune placed a spotlight on questionable spending in the Minneapolis school district when it was found that nearly half of expense reports lacked supporting documentation, even though this was against district policy. Tenure allows these people to remain handcuffed to the classroom so breaking a few rules isn’t much of an issue.  To obtain the information necessary to shine the light on this wasteful spending, the Star Tribune made use of a data request under Minnesota Statutes Section 13.43.  The data request can also be a powerful tool for the average citizen, allowing them to become a watchdog over their local school district.

Guidelines on how to request data from a government entity can be found on the website for the Information Policy Analysis Division or IPAD.  According to IPAD, under the Data Practices Act (Minnesota Statutes, Chapter 13), you have the right to request information from a government entity.  If you are seeking information regarding yourself or your minor child (in data practices terms, you are referred to as the data subject), you have the right to access the data free of charge.   Advocating for your child becomes even more important when you or your child have been bullied or manipulated by administrators, special education teachers or school psychologists.  The manipulation of parents and taxpayers needs to be exposed so that we can advocate for students and our community.

 School districts are required to have a Data PracticesCompliance Official and the district must keep all data in such a way that it is easily accessible to the general public. Examples of written requests may be found on the IPAD website. Districts may require you to fill out a simple form which can be mailed or faxed to the Compliance Official.  You may request to inspect data free of charge before making the decision to request digital or hard copies of the information. If you or your children are the subject of a data search, the school does not have the right to charge you for searching and retrieving the information and may only charge for the actual cost of making, certifying and compiling of copies.

Data requests are a good way to keep tabs on the dirty little secrets districts love to hide.  However, don’t be surprised, if during the course of inspection, unexpected issues arise.  Problems receiving data, especially if it’s for a controversial subject that may jeopardize the integrity of the school district may be experienced.  When this occurs, an appeal may be made to the state IPAD agency for an advisory opinion.  IPAD does not have the authority to force the district to comply with the decision but you will then have the option to file a complaint in district court or with the Office of Administrative Hearings.

The OAH advisory opinion below was issued in 2007 regarding the right to gain access to certain data from the City of Silver Bay.  In a letter dated November 30, 2006, the Silver Bay City Administrator enclosed an invoice, and requested prepayment.  The requester, Mr. Mealey,  received copies of 109 pages, for which the City charged the following to retrieve and copy:

Administrator Rate: $32.15 × 1 1/2 hours = $48.22
Deputy Clerk Rate: $22.11 × 1 3/4 hours = 38.69 

 The total charge to retrieve and copy 109 pages was $86.91. In his opinion request, Mr. Mealey questioned the reasonableness of the City charging copy costs at the Administrator and Deputy Clerk's hourly rates given that "[t]here are two additional employees in the city office, both of whom are lesser paid . . . I believe that either of the lesser paid employees were capable of performing the task." Mr. Mealey wrote, "[f]urther, it appears that the data requested was not kept easily accessible because it took a total of 3 1/4 man-hours to retrieve and copy 107 [sic] pages of data." 

  Silver Bay City Administrator comments:

 I believe we strictly complied with the statute. In my experience, as the Silver Bay City Administrator, this was the first request for copies of government documents this office has ever received. As the Responsible Authority I believed I had the responsibility to personally address Mr. Mealey's request and to designate a member of my staff that could most competently and efficiently search for, retrieve and copy the data requested. It was my opinion that the Deputy Clerk-Treasurer was that person, since she handles the finances, receives and pays all bills. I did not feel that the other two lower paid employees could as efficiently do so in the same period of time.

The City Attorney sends a statement each month for its retainer and expenses together with a detail of time. There are usually separate billings for special services in addition to the monthly retainer. The each [sic] of the statements usually consists of two to three pages stapled together. Those statement [sic] are placed in a packet with other bills and submitted to the Council for approval. The total City bills average one hundred per month. After approval, the bills are paid by the Deputy Clerk. All paid bills are assembled and placed in monthly packets. Those packets are readily accessible. After the year end audit they are placed in the archives. To meet Mr. Mealey's request, it was necessary for the Deputy Clerk to go to the archives, search through the bills and retrieve the monthly paid bills of Johnson & Morris for November and December 2005. She would have to go through the packet of approximately 100 bills to pull out the Johnson & Morris bills. She would do the same for each month's packet from January through October of 2006. Since the Johnson & Morris bills usually were stapled, it would be necessary to remove the staples to copy. The 1-3/4 hours of time involved in searching for, retrieving and copying the requested data is most conservative and reasonable.
As the Responsible Authority, I believed I had a duty to take the time to review the material to make certain it was complete and to participate in the search and retrieval of the requested data.
Mr. Mealey also requested 'a copy of the retainer fee schedule . . . for services provided by the law firm . . . to become effective January 1, 2007' and 'all communications from [the firm] regarding their request for an increase in their retainer fees.' Since I attend all Council Meetings, where these matters were discussed, I felt I could most efficiently secure this material myself. It was necessary to go through correspondence over a period of time to search for, retrieve and make copies.
I was being most conservative in a charge of only 1 1/2; hours for my time. I did not charge Mr. Mealey for the actual cost to the City of my time or for that of the Deputy Clerk. I only charged the actual wage costs. We could have charged the full labor costs of wages and benefits in order to compensate the city for 'actual costs of searching for and retrieving government data.'
 The City' of Silver Bay's actual hourly labor costs are: City Administrator, $46.20; Deputy Clerk-Treasurer, $34.36; Assistant Deputy Clerk, $28.38.


 Based on Mr. Mealy's opinion request, the Commissioner agreed to address the following issue: Did the City of Silver Bay comply with Minnesota Statutes, Chapter 13, when it charged $86.91 to retrieve and copy 109 pages of government data?


Based on the facts and information provided, my opinion on the issues that Mr. Mealey raised is as follows:
The City of Silver Bay did not comply with Minnesota Statutes, Chapter 13, when it charged $86.91 to retrieve and copy 109 pages of government data. If the two requests were each for fewer than 100 pages, the City may not charge more than $.25 per page, or $27.25. If one request was for more than 100 pages, the City may charge its actual, reasonable cost to provide copies of those data.

Dana B. Badgerow
Dated: January 12, 2007

Is District 833 Complying With Data Requests

In 2013, a group of concerned individuals began utilizing the Minnesota Data Information Act in order to gain access to public documents the district really didn’t want to share.  In fact, one such request was met with a letter from Dr. Jacobus himself, demanding that the only way the request would be fulfilled was for the person issuing the request to pay over $1500 for the copying of the requested information – which was in direct disobedience to the law.
 The use of technology in the information age should make acquiring data a snap and cost effective, which makes the $1,500 charge to receive information perplexing. Administrators continue to push for more funding despite the fact that test scores and other evaluations continue to decline and conflict among students continue to escalate. Putting the thumb-screws to the watchdogs of our communities might be an attempt to provide cover for these government monstrosities whose appetite for taxpayer funds will never be satisfied. 

This is part 1 of a three part series, so sign up for updates to keep informed.  The information we have received from you on monstrous overcharges and ridiculous redactions are coming soon.

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