Va. school officials complain of costs of parents' FOIA requests

February 7, 2011

In her fight to keep her daughter's Fairfax County school from closing, Elizabeth Schultz found a new tool in an old law, filing more than a dozen Freedom of Information Act requests to bolster the case for Clifton Elementary.

Schultz knows that the filings can be costly. Her last request for a trove of school officials' e-mails came with a shocking price tag: $624,000. She revised the request before it was processed.

But Fairfax school officials say the soaring expenses associated with information requests from parents are rarely recouped. They pointed to Schultz's sweeping requests as part of an unprecedented surge that stretches resources and creates tension between parents and the schools.

In the district's legislative agenda this year, School Board members have called for revisions to the state FOIA laws in order to strike the "appropriate balance between the considerable investment in time and money required for compliance and ensuring the people of the Commonwealth ready access to public records."

"The law is unrealistic right now," said Elizabeth T. Bradsher, a School Board member who represents Springfield. "It's hampering the business of the school district. We don't have the employees to handle the surge. . . . It's crippling the system."

The school district's allusion to the ballooning costs of processing FOIA requests - which officials called "substantial" but declined to quantify - is not embodied in any particular bill. But it is an issue that the district's director of government relations, Michael Molloy, has taken with him to Richmond this year.

The district's stance has sparked intense reaction from some of the county's parent advocates, who have come to regard the FOIA process as an essential check on power.

"They're attempting to relieve themselves of transparency," Schultz said. "This is one of the only tools left to get at the heart of the matter. Why is FCPS trying so hard not to answer the public's questions? They're spending our money in Richmond to avoid providing the information they're legally obligated to provide."

Fairfax is not the only school district in Northern Virginia that has seen a rise in FOIA requests. Prince William County has had a steady increase - and a surge of requests in 2008, including the well-publicized case of Mark Hjelm, who spent two years in court trying to get records of the district's high school visitors list to see whether schools were adequately protected from sex offenders. The district shouldered considerable legal costs contesting the requests, but Hjelm won the case last spring.

Prince William officials share the concern of their counterparts in Fairfax about the costs of processing such requests.

"Given the limited resources we have to respond to the many public requests we receive, including FOIA requests, it can pose challenges if we receive a significant number of individual requests in a short period of time," said Ken Blackstone, spokesman for the Prince William schools. "Staff is diverted from day-to-day duties to meet these very specific requests, some of which can take a good bit of research."

In Fairfax, Schultz and other parents sued the school district based on e-mails made public through the Freedom of Information Act. They said that School Board members' private correspondence about Clifton's closure violated the open meetings law. The suit, which also alleges that school officials are withholding information sought in parents' FOIA requests, sustained a setback last month, but the parents are still pushing their claim.

Fairfax school officials say expensive renovations to Clifton cannot be justified, given its small enrollment, especially at a time when budgets are tight.

But the fight over the school has proved costly as well, officials say. In 2002, one FOIA request was filed in the school district. Last year, there were more than 150 requests - many of them related to Clifton.

Parents have filed numerous requests this year, including the most recent one from Schultz. To process that request, school district officials said they would have to manually search more than 40,000 e-mail accounts and sift through piles of paperwork. School officials said that process would consume about 20,000 work hours, at a cost of $31 per hour.

Parents elsewhere in the county have turned to FOIA requests to gather information for struggles with school officials.

"We've got lawyers and political strategists in this community - people who know how to use data and know how to FOIA," said Catherine Lorenze, a Fairfax parent whose advocacy Web site, redapplemom.com, includes an explanation of how parents can use FOIA requests.

In the past year, the increase in FOIA requests - traditionally used mainly by journalists and researchers - has created tension between Fairfax's School Board and the community. Parents have solicited thousands of internal School Board e-mails and posted their findings on blogs, sometimes accompanied by personal attacks against individual members.

"We're red meat for the public," said Jane K. Strauss, a member from Dranesville.

Some School Board members characterize the rise of FOIA requests as an indiscriminate witch hunt. Parents, however, say they're filing requests only because officials are not routinely making sufficient information available.

"If you're an elected official, anything you put in an e-mail address, you better be careful what you write," said Janet Oter-sen, a parent of three Fairfax students who has filed about a dozen FOIA requests in the past year. "They have a serious trust issue with this community. We don't trust them, and we have plenty of reasons not to."

In recent weeks, School Board members have added signatures to their e-mails reminding people with whom they correspond that almost all of their e-mails are subject to FOIA laws.

"The fact that any of my e-mails can be read by anyone in the country who makes a FOIA request - that frankly bothers me," said Daniel G. Storck, a board member who represents Mount Vernon. "There's an opportunity to improve the process."

Kevin Sieff has been The Post’s bureau chief in Nairobi since 2014. He served previously as the bureau chief in Kabul and had covered the U.S. -Mexico border.
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