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Schools forced to divert staff amid historic flood of records requests

Districts are rushing to comply with complex queries as parents seek “transparency” about what is taught

Chris Picha of Owatonna Public Schools works away at a records request that has already cost $165,000 and 2,200 hours of staff time to fill. (Owatonna Public Schools)
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One Virginia school district added half a million dollars to its budget just to process public records requests. In the span of 90 days this school year, an Arkansas district received 100 such requests that cost nearly $20,000 and 400 hours of staff labor to fill.

And in Minnesota’s Owatonna Public Schools, the 61-year-old director of human resources is still plowing her way through a request from the citizens’ group United Patriots for Accountability, which in summer 2021 sought all school communications and records that mentioned 19 phrases including “Black Lives Matter,” “institutional racism” and “Whiteness.” That request has already consumed $165,000 of the district’s money and, director of human resources Chris Picha estimates, 2,200 hours of staff time, much of it drawn from her own weekends and holidays. She has generated approximately 170,000 pages of records and guesses it will take another year to complete the request.

“I am very tired,” she said. “I almost want to vomit when I hear the word ‘redaction.’”

School districts across the nation are facing a mounting pile of increasingly complex records requests from parents, community members and attorneys representing education advocacy groups — all of whom say they want greater transparency about how local children are educated. The requests are expansive, with filers seeking hundreds of thousands of pages of school emails, lesson plans and other internal documents, all of which must be carefully reviewed for student and employee personal information in compliance with federal privacy laws. School leaders warn that resources are being diverted away from students’ academic needs at the exact instant America is facing dropping test scores, a teen mental health crisis and a teacher shortage.

The spike in interest in school records began during the coronavirus pandemic, when citizens sought information on topics such as masking policies or district spending on safety measures. Since then, the focus has shifted to curriculum documentation or the contents of emails between school board members, as concerns have spread nationwide over what public schools are teaching about race, gender and sexual orientation.

“This has now become a sort of tool of choice for interrogating controversial school district policies,” said Margaret Kwoka, a professor at Ohio State University who studies Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and transparency laws.

There is no national database tracking the number of public records requests sent to schools. Still, one company that offers request processing software, Granicus, said it has seen a 62 percent increase in the number of K-12 school districts signing up for its product since 2020. Granicus serves more than 700 state, county and municipal governments and schools nationwide. School board associations or heads of state public records associations in at least eight states — Kentucky, Maryland, New Jersey, Connecticut, Virginia, Arizona, Colorado and Minnesota — also reported an uptick.

Some parents and freedom of information advocates said school districts have long needed to devote more resources to handling records requests so mothers, fathers and taxpayers can better understand their public schools.

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“I like to see more citizen engagement,” said Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. “To the extent that these people are demanding answers and wanting to know how things work in their local school district, I think that is a good thing.”

Carol Beth Litkouhi, a parent in Michigan’s Rochester Community Schools, wound up taking her district to court over what she called its refusal to provide public records she requested related to a class on ethnic and gender studies. Litkouhi grew concerned about the course when she saw a teacher’s post on social media that suggested to Litkouhi the class materials “were all coming from one side of the political spectrum,” she said, declining to specify which side.

But over the course of six months and a half-dozen Michigan Freedom of Information Act requests, the district declined to share the list of class readings and assignments Litkouhi had asked for, she said, leading her to sue. In the interim, she also ran for school board, in part campaigning to make the district more “transparent and forthcoming about what is being taught to students,” as she wrote in a Facebook post from her candidate page.

In an emailed statement, a district spokeswoman said, “Rochester Community Schools has been completely transparent and has provided the plaintiff with hundreds of pages of documents in response to the plaintiff’s several FOIA requests.”

Litkouhi won the school board seat but lost her lawsuit.

“I believe nothing in our schools should be kept a secret,” Litkouhi said. “We live in a free society, we should be allowed to see what is going on.”

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‘Not productive’

The influx of records requests is changing how schools operate.

In Fairfax County, the largest school division in Virginia, a surge of 258 records requests since the pandemic led to the hiring of a full-time FOIA analyst and the purchase of a document review platform, costing the school division $72,000 annually. In total, the district earmarked $500,000 of its 2023 budget for FOIA matters.

Neighboring Loudoun County recently asked five lawyers and communications staffers to take free online FOIA trainings — hoping to better manage the hundreds of record requests the district is facing, per spokesman Dan Adams. Queries in the district jumped from 31 in 2019, to 224 in 2020, to 554 in 2021 and 403 in 2022, Adams said. Most of the freshly trained staff, including Adams, must help manage records requests in addition to their primary roles.

“I have one right now where it’s gonna take me about six hours to go through the 411 responsive records,” Adams said. “That’s almost a full day’s work.”

Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin school district, meanwhile, hired someone to review and redact documents, purchased a management system for data requests and asked two members of its legal team to spend up to 20 hours weekly providing guidance on how to handle inquiries. David Law, who served as superintendent of the district until this summer — when he took the top job in Minnetonka — estimates Anoka-Hennepin spent a quarter of a million dollars responding to data requests in the past three years: “We didn’t have enough people to keep teachers in front of kids, so allocating resources someplace else was really frustrating.”

Law said the district saw 145 requests between spring 2020 and his departure, compared with a dozen the year before the pandemic hit. The stream never lessened, he said, though the focus shifted: from pandemic masking requirements to any email using the word “race” (which pulled in thousands of messages about swim and track competitions) to, most recently, queries about specific school employees.

“It was, ‘I want every email from Jane Smith that mentions the word equity,’” Law said. “We’d share those emails, then someone would come to the board and say, ‘Fire Jane Smith.’ … It was a distraction and not productive.”

But others pointed to positives.

Kirk Schneidawind, executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association, said school districts across his state have become well-versed in data privacy laws and best practices after sifting through records requests. Additionally, he said, many school boards are thinking about ways they can get ahead of records requests by making more information public at board meetings.

In Michigan’s Rochester district, Litkouhi spearheaded an updated arrangement where all school board work sessions — not just the regular monthly meetings — are recorded and made available to the public.

“I’m trying to convince them to put our email addresses on the website,” she said, “but there’s been some resistance to that. So, it’s baby steps.”

‘It’s important to know’

State- and district-level anecdotes suggest that requests are not only increasing in number but also getting more complex.

In Connecticut, school districts are seeing queries that “are generally very broad — not related to specific communications,” said Patrice McCarthy, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education. In Kentucky, requests are similarly “vaguely worded, seeking substantial information,” said Josh Shoulta of that state’s school board association.

And in Connecticut’s Middletown Public Schools two years ago, parent David Booth filed a far-reaching records request after he grew concerned he wasn’t getting the full picture regarding a district survey of parents’ attitudes toward in-person learning. The district said parents preferred remote lessons, but this did not jibe with what Booth said he saw in Facebook groups, where parents seemed to favor face-to-face classes.

So Booth filed a request for “all emails to and from all Board of Education members from August 1, 2020 to February 17, 2021” — hoping, he said, to receive information on how the survey was conducted. The district told him his request would generate 30,000 pages of records at a cost of 50 cents per page — inspiring a months-long legal battle that ultimately led to the Middletown school system providing Booth with 11,500 emails free of charge 394 days after he made the initial request. (The Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission found that the Middletown district had violated the “promptness provisions” of state FOIA laws, though it declined to impose penalties.)

School district spokeswoman Jessie Lavorgna called Booth’s requested documents “an enormous number of emails” and noted that, for a long time, the district could dedicate only one employee to go through the pile of documents by hand, checking for any necessary redactions. Later, she said, the district engaged legal counsel to help, and the lawyers bought software to speed the process.

“Ultimately,” Booth said, “I never received the exact information I was looking for. Which is sad.”

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Booth’s style of information-seeking goes against best practices, said Jeffrey Roberts, president of the National Freedom of Information Coalition. He said that narrower FOIA requests have a higher chance of success — especially since school officials face the added difficulty of removing students’ personal information. (In many states, districts can charge a fee for documents that is equivalent to the pay staff received for the hours they spent filling the request.)

In Owatonna, the group of parents and residents who are seeking all school records related to 19 search terms took a thoughtful approach, said James Dickey, an attorney with Upper Midwest Law Center. Dickey’s firm is representing United Patriots for Accountability pro bono in their efforts to seek files from the district.

He and his clients decided it would not be fruitful to ask for something specific like “all the documents that show you’re teaching critical race theory” — a college-level academic framework that inspects systemic racism in the United States and that has become a right-wing catchall for education on race that it views as politically motivated.

“The answer was going to be ‘We don’t have it,’ as they interpret what ‘critical race theory’ means different from a lot of parents,” Dickey said. So his firm broadened the request: “We used key words that are commonly used buzzwords in educational circles that would … lead to the discovery of what is being taught on these divisive concepts.”

Dickey said his clients have seen mixed results. Some of the documents turned over revealed the district offered an elective for high school students devoted to critical race theory, he said. District spokeswoman Lori Buegler confirmed that Minnesota State University at Mankato “offered a College in the Schools course entitled ‘Critical Race Theory’ at Owatonna High School one time, during spring semester of 2021,” and that 18 juniors and seniors took the class.

But other documents have been so heavily redacted as to become unintelligible, Dickey said. He said his firm is considering suing if the excessive redaction continues.

“Our clients have no intent to add a burden to the school district,” Dickey said. “But they think it’s important to know what is going on.”


A previous version of this story said that Middletown Public Schools in Connecticut bought software to aid in its document searches. In fact, the school system's lawyers acquired the software. The story has been corrected.