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.
Does this sound like what’s happening with your school district’s public records requests?
- You’re getting records requests about education hot button issues from the media, political groups, concerned citizens, and especially parents.
- You’re processing increased complex information requests—FOIA, FERPA, subpoenas, and more.
- You’re taking attention away from your core job duties to fill these requests.
You’re not alone. School districts have become targets in the nation’s broader “culture wars,” and those processing records requests are caught in the crossfire.
A case in point: In Loudon County, Virginia, FOIA requests typically number less than 100 annually. By late 2021, the school district had received more than 500 requests. These requests sometimes asked for copies of board member emails, records of teacher and administrator interactions with Facebook groups, and even phone logs.
What’s happening today is a mixture of good and not-so-good. On the positive side, parents are demonstrating an interest in their children’s education by seeking to understand how decisions are made.
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 between some parents and school administration.
This blog will look at the top three reasons school districts have seen significantly more information requests over the several years 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.
Stakeholders request information about topics including:
Curriculum. Parents increasingly want to understand and have a voice in what their children are being taught. 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.
Safety policies. Parents and community members understandably need reassurance that districts are prepared to protect children and staff.
Budgets, 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.
School budgets and expenditures are always high interest. But school districts are currently experiencing increased curiosity and scrutiny. For instance, at Fairfax Country Public Schools, two parents filed an open records request about school board spending that generated 1,300 pages of responsive records.
Issues piquing interest in budgets include:
COVID-era funding. Schools received pandemic stimulus funds to upgrade equipment and fulfill deferred compensation increases. The public wants to know how this funding was used.
Vouchers. One facet of the “school choice” movement concerns how districts use funds. In some instances, vouchers allow parents to use public funds to pay their students’ tuition at private schools.
Budget shortfalls. Districts are facing budget shortfalls because of inflation and declining enrollment. These shortfalls have sometimes prompted massive reorganizations and even school closures.
Email Records Requests
The use of email as a preferred communication method poses some difficulty when processing records requests. For example, when school officials use email to conduct business, it becomes subject to FOIA. This has led to requests for “any and all” emails related to specific topics. These can be time- and labor-intensive to fill.
In addition to open records, emails about students are often considered “educational records” under The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). In many states, that means that a parent can request to see any email in which their child is named.
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.