The past couple of years have been challenging for Iowa’s 327 public school districts.
Parents have become very engaged with their schools — and enraged, too, at times. This has revolved around masks and vaccines, what is being taught or not taught, the content of library books, and an assortment of other concerns.
But in some communities, school leaders have greatly misjudged the angst of parents, grandparents and other taxpayers.
Look at the aggressive campaigns for school board seats and the ouster of some incumbent board members. Remember the heated school board meetings around Iowa punctuated with shouting, threats and arguments. Take note of the sudden decisions by a handful of administrators and teachers to retire immediately or seek jobs elsewhere.
The experience last week of Jacob Hall, a prominent blogger from Sioux Center, suggests that some school officials are failing to recognize their culpability in the crossroads Iowa schools now face.
Don’t be surprised if Hall’s experience with the Linn-Mar School District becomes the motivation for lawmakers to make an important, and needed, change in the public records law when the Iowa Legislature convenes in January.
Lawmakers should act — because the Linn-Mar district’s response to Hall’s request for records is outrageous. And he is not the first Iowan to be chased away from obtaining government records by breath-taking costs quoted by government officials who completely miss the intent of the Legislature when it wrote the public records law.
Here is what is afoot in the Linn-Mar district:
Hall owns and edits the Iowa Standard. The online publication caters to conservative readers with its news coverage and commentary on public affairs and politics.
Using the public records law, Hall asked for emails and text messages exchanged by Linn-Mar administrators, teachers and other employees about a “Transgender Week” observance at Linn-Mar High School in Marion.
The public records law makes such communications available to anyone who asks, although certain confidential information is protected from disclosure, such as details about specific students.
The law speaks of the importance of free and open examination of records. The statute allows — but does not require — government officials to charge reasonable fees for retrieving and copying documents and for reviewing them for confidential information that needs to be blacked out.
You can imagine Hall’s surprise when the Linn-Mar communications coordinator informed him he would have to pay $504 to receive the records he sought.
The official explained it would take two hours of a computer technology employee’s time to retrieve the emails and text messages and an hour and a half for an attorney to examine those communications for confidential details.
The IT worker’s time would be charged to Hall at the rate of $57 per hour — meaning the worker makes $118,000 annually. The attorney’s time would be charged at $260 per hour.
At $500, the Linn-Mar records would be out of reach financially for most people in Iowa. But Hall and the Iowa Standard were willing to pay the cost, and he asked the communications official how to make the payment. He also asked how many pages of emails and text messages he would receive.
Hall was not expecting what he heard next:
“In reviewing the information that I provided to you, the amount quoted is the rate to access each employee record,” the official wrote. “The total amount for staff time to retrieve the records and attorney time to review/redact confidential information for the entire district would come to approximately $604,000.”
Read that again; it’s not a typo. $604,000.
The costs Linn-Mar quoted to Hall mean, in effect, it would take 2,400 hours to retrieve the emails and text messages containing the keywords “Trans Week.” That is 60 weeks of full-time work by the school’s information technology employee. And it would require 45 weeks of a $260-an-hour attorney working full-time looking for confidential information in those emails and text messages.
The Iowa Freedom of Information Council, the nonprofit organization I lead, believes the cost for records is one of the biggest obstacles standing between the public and the records they seek from state and local governments.
It is obvious the Linn-Mar district does not want to share its internal communications about “Trans Week” — potentially a source of criticism from Iowans at a time when there already is intense scrutiny of public schools.
It is immaterial whether Jacob Hall’s publication is liberal, conservative or somewhere in between. It is immaterial whether school officials or students or anyone else thinks his request was unimportant. It doesn’t matter what motive the Iowa Standard has for writing about Transgender Week and the discord that occurred at the school.
The Legislature needs to make it a priority to place a cap on the amount government can charge for its records. $600,000 does not meet most people’s definition of reasonable.
Randy Evans is the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and a former opinion page editor at the Des Moines Register. He can be reached at DMRevans2810@gmail.com.