Wichita public schools: Open records requests are a burden

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I recently learned that USD 259 (the Wichita, Kansas public school district) considers it a burden when citizens make requests for records. At least that’s what Lynn Rogers, vice-president of the board of USD 259, told me at a May 12, 2008 meeting when I was invited to express concerns regarding my opposition to the proposed 2008 bond issue. I suspect the other board members and administration officials agree with him.

As a government institution, the Wichita public school district is subject to the Kansas Open Records Act, which requires it to respond to citizen requests for information. The ability to smoothly and competently, with a minimum of fuss, provide records to any requesting member of the public is a core competency that we should routinely expect of a public agency.

It is not the fault of a member of the public if a government agency is thrown into disarray by a few public records requests; rather, that suggests that the agency has not yet developed a professional competence in records archiving and management. The budget of the school district is $544,384,275 a year (2006-2007 school year). If they spent 0.01% of that on records management, the annual amount available for records management and retrieval would be $54,438.

I’d encourage the Wichita school district to follow the practice of District 300 in Illinois, which not only provides copies of records requested in a professional manner but posts all records requests and records retrieved under those requests on its own website, so anyone can see them. In this way the effort of the district to produce records is leveraged, and more citizens can become aware of school district information. The Illinois District 300 site may be viewed here: The District 300 Freedom of Information Act Online Program.

In order for school districts to effectively educate their students there must be a strong bond of trust between the school and its stakeholders in the community — parents, students, taxpayers, and district employees. These bonds of trust are undermined when the school district carps about providing records to the very public with whom it needs to build strong bonds. No better example of this is the scolding that interim superintendent Martin Libhart delivered to me at the May 12 meeting. “We do know how many classrooms we have, I can assure you of that,” he said. So Mr. Libhart, why not share those numbers with us?

Wichita school district officials say they want to be held accountable. Responding to records requests is one way for them to fulfill that desire. But the district’s attitude when faced with requests filed by citizens reveals a different attitude.

As Randy Brown recently wrote in The Wichita Eagle: “Without open government, you don’t have a democracy.” I rely on a greater authority, Thomas Jefferson, who said: “The same prudence, which, in private life, would forbid our paying our money for unexplained projects, forbids it in the disposition of public moneys.”


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