Monday, August 4, 2014

Why Does Transparency Cost So Much? (Updated)

On Wednesday July 30, 2014, I submitted a Sunshine request for documents to the Fox C-6 School District for the settlement agreements for Superintendent Critchlow and Assistant Superintendent Dan Baker and his wife Angela Burns Baker as well as the Credit Card Statements for 2013-2014, recent Board Meeting Minutes (with individual votes of board members made in Closed Session) and copies of the Contracts for all Central Office Administrators.

By law the district has until the close of business Monday August 4th to respond to my request. It will be interesting to see what the district's response is now that Superintendent Crutchley is Fox's acting superintendent. In the past, many of my Sunshine requests were met with high dollar fees to obtain documents. Many of the documents I paid for such as board packets should have been published on the district's website for free as they do in most school districts our size.

Charging for documents that should be freely available to the public gives the impression that someone in our school district does NOT want that information made public. The same goes for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (MO DESE) as well.

For several months I've been requesting copies of the 2013-2014 credit card statements from Fox C-6. The district spent more than $2 Million dollars last year using credit cards without supplying the credit card statements to our school board in their board packets for approval each month. So board members had no way of knowing what the money was being spent on unless they asked.

Superintendent Critchlow was in charge when I first requested copies of the credit card statements. The response I received from Fox's custodian of records was that the district wanted to charge me about $170 for those documents. The credit card statements should have been included in the board packets each month like they are in the Affton School District where Fox's new Chief Financial Officer previously worked.

For the majority of the 2013-2014 school year, school board members were asked to approve payments each month for 3 different credit cards without being provided the statements for the credit cards.

Similarly, Bill Payments reports for checks still don't list a description of what each payment is for. Board President John Laughlin says this will be fixed in the near future. This should have been a red flag for our school board and the community considering that the district has financial issues. It's a very good reason why our school board should request a state audit of the Fox C-6 School District.

The easiest way to keep the information out of the public's view is to charge a fee that's high enough to deter you from obtaining the data. If a government body doesn't want someone to have that information, they simply up the fees to an amount that only the news media can afford to pay. News media will pay for information if they think they may find something that might make for a good story and bring in some advertising dollars. Your average citizen isn't going to fork over hundreds of dollars to check up on what's going on in their school district when the information should have been freely available to begin with. Our school board should make sure that information is freely available to the public.

School board meeting packets weren't published on the district's website until board members John Laughlin and Steve Holloway stepped in to get that done last year. So I know there are at least two board members that are interested in making sure our school district is transparent.

When I made a Sunshine request for the credit card statements from Fox C-6 earlier this spring, the district asked me to pay nearly $170 to lookup and copy 9 months of statements for the district credit cards. District credit cards are given to some administrators, directors and to some Family and Consumer Science (FACS) teachers in the district. Credit cards allow them to make quick purchases and/or payments when needed without having to necessarily generate a purchase order. Without credit card statements there can't be any accountability on how tax dollars are being spent.

The estimate from the district's custodian of records (who is also our superintendent's secretary) was 5.5 hours to locate the credit card statements and redact them and another 0.5 hour to make copies of the documents.

Don't let it worry you that the district spent more than $2 million dollars using credit cards during the 2013-2014 school year. I knew the district was paying electric bills using credit cards because the Bill Payments for checks never had payments to Ameren until recently. So that would account for roughly $130,000 to $145,000 each month.

It's easy to understand that the district wanted to get "cash back" from using credit cards to pay for things because every dollar counts when your trying to put your money into the classroom as Superintendent Critchlow would always tell me. But, without proper oversight of what is being purchased using credit cards by our school board raises concerns. Someone could easily take advantage of the lack of accountability and your tax dollars might get used improperly. The Fox C-6 community is now learning how a lack of oversight can allow for things to occur that should not.

So, when your school district wants to charge you quite a bit of money for something that should have already been provided to your school board members each month for free, you get the feeling someone is trying to hide something. If the district has nothing to hide, the district should have waived the fees for my Sunshine requests considering this information was for the public's interest.

MO DESE Charges For Sunshine Requests As Well
In the case of MO DESE, the state requested $1305 to research and supply correspondence between the Fox C-6 School District or its attorneys and Missouri DESE Food Nutrition Services (FNS) and the USDA's Food Nutrition Services (FNS) Office for Civil Rights between the months of September 2013 and March 2014 in connection with a specific complaint.

Not only did the fee seem awfully high, but MO DESE had previously fulfilled a similar Sunshine request for nearly 2 years of the same information dating back to August 2011 for FREE!

Being asked to pay $1305 for 7 months of correspondence when nearly 2 years of correspondence was previously provided for FREE makes a person wonder why it now costs so much especially given the fact that MO DESE already identified the number of items that it would be providing.

Could it be that the documents being requested during this time period would have included correspondence from USDA FNS OCR informing the state that Fox C-6 needed to be brought into compliance with federal law and regulations or risk losing federal funding of the school nutrition program?

Fox C-6 and MO DESE were found non-compliant with federal law and USDA guidelines and regulations in August 2011. However, the district nor DESE did anything to become compliant between August 2011 and August 2013.

So, the fees for obtaining information for this period of time could have been due to MO DESE or Fox C-6 not wanting this information released to the public. Superintendent Dianne Critchlow and Assistant Superintendent Dan Baker had been adamantly insisting for years at school board meetings and in news articles that Fox C-6 had been properly following the law relative to Section 504 and the ADA. But now, Fox was being told by Missouri DESE FNS that the district needed to comply with federal law and USDA OCR's regulations and guidelines because the district had signed an assurance agreement with the state that they would.

Below is the Sunshine request response received from MO DESE's legal counsel on March 11, 2014.

Sunshine Request Response from Missouri DESE 
March 11, 2014 
This office has completed a preliminary search of documents conforming to your request in the following areas:
  • All correspondence  between Missouri DESE and the USDA FNS OCR with regards to USDA Complaint #09-3616 against the Fox C-6 School District or its attorney from September 2013 to March 4, 2014.
  • All correspondence between Missouri DESE and the Fox C-6 School District with regards to USDA Complaint #09-3616 against the Fox C-6 School district or its attorney from September 2013 March 4, 2014. 
The preliminary search using the search terms “USDA and 09-3616,” “USDA and OCR” and “USDA and Fox” has identified approximately 1,213 items. It is estimated that retrieval and production of these items will require a minimum of 60 hours of staff time, at a cost of $1,305. Per your request, I am providing notice of this cost prior to initiating the final production of these documents. If you wish to narrow the scope of your request, please contact me. Otherwise, this work will begin upon receipt of payment. Payment should be made to the Treasurer, State of Missouri and forwarded to this office. You will be billed for any remaining costs at the time the documents are produced.

Please contact me if you have any questions regarding the estimate or this response.

Mark Allan Van Zandt
General Counsel

I had made numerous Sunshine requests to MO DESE prior to the above request for various things such as salary information. MO DESE typically responded within a day and I was never charged for the information. MO DESE had always been very open and willing to provide the information.

And as noted above, a previous request was made to MO DESE for the same information over a longer period of time and that information was supplied for FREE.

So, why all of a sudden was there a huge charge for 7 months of information compared to the previous Sunshine request?

Do governmental bodies think that we're not paying attention?

Charging large fees for information gives the impression that someone doesn't want you to have the information you're requesting. By making the information too expensive for a citizen watchdog makes it very easy to hide facts from the public.