The majority of California's K-12 school districts are failing to comply with the state Public Records Act, according to a report released yesterday by the nonprofit group Californians Aware.
The organization requested documents from more than 250 public agencies last fall, including half of the state’s 72 community college districts, all 32 university campuses and all but a few of the 200 local school districts. The institutions were graded on the quality of their response and response time, helpfulness, copy fees, and whether they demanded identification or written request forms.
Of all the agencies tested, the school districts came out with the worst average score – 53.6 percent. The UC system's scores weren't much better, also an F average. State universities and community college districts fared better, earning a B and B-minus average, respectively.
“The school districts and the UCs both failed but for different reasons,” said Emily Francke, executive director of Californians Aware. The UCs took “an extremely long time to produce documents" and "weren’t taking ownership for the documents," requiring the requesters to "chase down the documents from different sources."
When UC Santa Cruz officials told her the slow response time was due to a backlog of information requests, she asked for the most recent request. “As it turns out, they’re getting maybe one or two requests every week,” she said.
The school districts, on the other hand, either failed to acknowledge the information requests and subsequent e-mails, or acknowledged the request but never followed up, the report says.
Some school districts were docked points for having requesters fill out additional district forms that asked for personal identification information and organization affiliation. Many were also confused about what the information requests were for, according to the report.
Francke said Californians Aware specifically chose to request records, like a settlement agreement detailing damages paid to a student, which would demonstrate the value of public access to information, especially in light of the budget crisis and shrinking newsrooms.
“If the public took time to look at the documents, I think it would find them very compelling and that they show how our government is spending our money,” she said.
For those agencies that are willing to improve, the group will be offering training. But for others, “We’ll be suing some agencies if they don’t reform and coming up with some legislation to give the public more options in terms of enforcement.”
“In the past we’ve taken the kid gloves approach and haven’t taken agencies to court,” Francke added. “But we find that most agencies blow us off and don’t care.”
Californians Aware has already sued Contra Costa Community College District, arguing its copy fees are exorbitant, another common problem outlined in the audit report:
One hundred percent of the UC and CSU campuses claimed their actual cost of duplication was 20 cents per page or more, twice that of the copy fee established by the Department of Justice after a 2006 fee study.
The success stories illustrated in the report were few but stellar. Twenty-one percent of the 194 school districts got perfect scores. Poway, Chino Valley, Lakeside Union and Charter Oak were listed as some of the speediest responders, e-mailing requesters public records at no cost in less than 10 days.