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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

"FOIAs under fire" - editorial in The Clarkston News 10/12/11

FOIAs under fire

Officials question school Freedom of Info requests, funding

October 12, 2011 - School officials facing several Freedom of Information Act requests have some questions of their own.

"We have limited staff and limited time to take on these resources and it seems wasteful," said Superintendent Dr. Rod Rock at the Sept. 26 school board meeting.

Responding to FOIA requests submitted by Dawn Schaller of Independence Township, the school district printed 4,760 pages, with 26.75 hours of staff time. At a cost of $15.33 per hour and 10 cents per page, the cost was $886.08, Rock said.

School board members are mixed.

"We are one of the finest school district in the state and this activity has gone on too long with nothing to show for it," said board President Cheryl McGinnis. "Times are difficult enough with reform legislation being thrown at districts daily to deal with one person's unsubstantiated intentions."

Trustee Joan Patterson disagreed.

"I don't fault her at all – she's a citizen trying to help," Patterson said. "Dr. Rock should bring her on board to help with the reporting."

Kelli Horst, president of Clarkston PTA Council, sent a letter to the editor ("Questions about FOIA questions," page 6A).

"If nothing concrete has come from 18 months, nine FOIA requests and nearly 5,000 pages of documents, then it's time to stop chasing conspiracy theories and let our school administrators return to the business of educating our students," Horst said.

The district is required to charge the lowest hourly rate even though an employee with a higher hourly rate completes the request, said board Treasurer Steve Hyer

"This causes the district to spend money that could be spent in the classroom on FOIA requests instead," Hyer said. "This is troublesome to me and I would imagine to all of the parents who see these dollars going to FOIA requests instead of their classrooms."

Residents should focus on legislative activities in Lansing, said board Vice President Elizabeth Egan.

"All of us should understand the impact on our local schools and contact our legislators," Egan said. "That's where the real action is regarding how education will change - for better or worse."

"We are one of the finest school district in the state and this activity has gone on too long with nothing to show for it," McGinnis said.

Trustees Susan Boatman and Rosalie Lieblang support the FOIA effort.

"(Schaller) has discovered some inconsistencies that have provided the opportunity for the district to tighten up some procedures and provide more transparency to the public by updating information on the district website," Boatman said.

Taxpayers have the right to inspect and request public records, Lieblang said.

"In this environment of reduced state and federal funding and continual district budget cuts, I'm not surprised that people in our community want to make sure we are spending our limited resources wisely," Lieblang said. "I welcome the involvement and feedback from our community."

"She is asking for information we should have had on hand, available to the public, and she had to pay for it," Patterson said. "That makes me very uncomfortable."

Schaller filed her first FOIA request on March 16, 2010 for district credit card and check registers, bond contract information, central office job descriptions, receipts, and other documents.

She organized a group of volunteers to look at about 12,000 pages of ledgers, contracts, and other documents on March 31 ("Parents dig for school information," April 7, 2010).

She submitted additional requests in April and June to look into irregularities she found including inaccurate information on the district website under "Transparency Reports," using school funds improperly, and purchasing and contract bidding policies not being followed.

When Rock took over as superintendent in October 2010, Schaller sent him an email.

"I would like you to consider providing to me gratis, all of the information that I originally FOIAed on June 17 to allow me to finish the evaluation of the data from the district," Schaller said in the Oct. 25 email. "I would then present my findings to you for you to act on."

Rock responded with a bill for $606.60.

Schaller asked publisher Jim Sherman Jr. for financial assistance on Oct. 27, 2010, to support the FOIA request, and Sherman sent a $300 check – his only donation to the effort.

Rock, who started as superintendent on Oct. 6, 2010, still has questions.

"If Mr. Sherman offered to pay for Mrs. Schaller's FOIA request because of his interest in the previous superintendent, what is the motivation to continue now that the district employs a different superintendent," he asked. "Why wouldn't Mr. Sherman submit the FOIA request himself?"

For Schaller's FOIA request, Sept. 12, 2011, the district charged a processing fee of $254.95, based on an estimated 250 pages at 10 cents per page, about 15 hours of staff time at $15.33 per hour.

Plante and Moran's audit report presented to the school board, Oct. 10, includes the Certificate of Excellence Award from the Association of School Business Officials-International (ASBO) for 2010.

"I believe this is the 13th year our audit report has been submitted to receive this award of excellence," McGinnis said. "It is therefore difficult to understand under what grounds Mrs. Schaller continues to request massive amount of district information."

For Patterson, the report raises more questions, including an updated organization chart for the school district.

"It has new titles – when was this approved," she asked. "Do they get a raise? Nothing came through us."

Administration officials have new "executive director" titles – another new title is "chief academic officer."

She submitted her own request for more information on this and other issues with Plante and Moran and Bruce Beamer, executive director of business services.

Phil is editor for The Clarkston News. He is a veteran of the first Iraq war, having served in the U.S. Army.

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