Given how local and state governments see huge increases in public records requests, it should be no surprise that school districts are seeing similar surges in FOIA requests, primarily from parents. We want to see parents interested in their children’s education, but what’s happening today is a mixture of good and not-so-good. On the good side, some parents demonstrate an active interest in their children’s education. They go to parent-teacher conferences, attend PTA meetings, and want to understand how decisions are made regarding curriculum development, fund allocations, and school safety and security. On the not-so-good side, shocking news coverage, conflicting personal belief systems, and differing ideas regarding the role of public education have created distrust among groups of parents and between parents and school administration. And this is all tied to a growing sentiment that all levels of government need to be more transparent.
This blog will look at the top three reasons school districts have seen significantly more information requests over the past year and review some examples. It also includes an analysis of the consequences and costs associated with this surge of FOIA requests.
Policies and Procedures
Parents, interest groups, and media organizations have flooded school districts with requests for topics like critical race theory, student safety, mask mandates, and sanitary practices.
In Loudon County, Virginia, FOIA requests typically number less than 100 annually. By late 2021, the school district had received greater than 500 requests. Some of the requests were related to serious on-campus incidents, and others were about hot-button topics like critical race theory. These requests sometimes asked for copies of board member emails, records of teacher and administrator interactions with Facebook groups, and even phone logs. The county doubled its staff for handling requests, but processing fees will not cover the increased costs.
Rochester, Michigan, public school system received a 41-page record request for emails based on keyword searches — all documents related to “curricula with a sociological or cultural theme,” teacher attendance at conferences and seminars, and text messages made on school-owned cell phones. The school system estimated the cost to fulfill this request would be $900K.
Funding and Spending
Many school districts see records requests for budgets and expenditures, especially with stimulus funds for schools to upgrade equipment and technology and fulfill deferred compensation increases.
Throughout 2021, Pennoyer, Illinois, school district received numerous requests for unspent stimulus funds, amounts received from the American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Grant program (ARP ESSER), general maintenance and repair of buildings and facilities, wages, employee contributions to health insurance/benefits, and even “any and all” requests for purchasing records. These requests were handled quickly, but there are still costs associated with record retrieval, processing, and redaction.
In Fairfax County, Virginia, two parents submitted a FOIA request for school board spending that generated 1,300 pages of data. The Fairfax County Public School System (FCPS) sued these parents after they published the submitted documents online. FCPS lost in court, even though the school district inadvertently included information that is exempted from production under the FOIA law. Fortunately, the two parents redacted student and employee information from the documents before publishing them.
Children’s Emails from Virtual School Sessions
The pandemic forced school districts to stop conducting in-person classes or shrink class sizes to reduce the risk of virus transmission. Most districts rallied to rapidly stand-up learning management systems to support virtual learning during quarantine. These secure, online environments usually require learners to have access credentials (username and password) and an associated email address.
Many school districts created email addresses for every student. An unintended consequence is providing transparent access to the content of any email sent or received via these email addresses. Parents and guardians started asking for this information, and school districts were ill-prepared to respond.
Email records requests have an additional layer of complexity that requires extraction of the message content and associated attachments into files for redaction.
So now, the district’s IT team gets involved. To say IT teams at districts across the nation were overloaded by supporting new systems for virtual learning is a complete understatement. This perfect storm of unintended effects exacerbated an already boiled-over pot.
As states pass more laws to increase transparency, school districts must fine-tune their FOIA request processes. What was an avalanche of requests in prior years will likely become tomorrow’s new normal. As a result, staff needs to prepare for more “any and all” requests that comprise potentially thousands of records, such as emails, phone logs, policy documents, spreadsheets — you name it. The best way to prepare for this future is by implementing an integrated records request management system.