Howard schools faulted on open­ness

Pre­lim­i­nary re­port finds of­fi­cials failed to com­ply with in­for­ma­tion re­quests

Baltimore Sun - - NEWS - By Car­rie Wells Bal­ti­more Sun reporter John-John Wil­liams IV con­trib­uted to this ar­ti­cle. cwells@balt­sun.com

The Howard County pub­lic school sys­tem did not fol­low Mary­land law in han­dling some re­quests for pub­lic in­for­ma­tion, ac­cord­ing to a pre­lim­i­nary re­port from the state’s pub­lic ac­cess om­buds­man.

The Gen­eral As­sem­bly or­dered a re­view of the school sys­tem ear­lier this year in re­sponse to com­plaints by res­i­dents that Howard school of­fi­cials weren’t re­spond­ing cor­rectly to in­for­ma­tion re­quests. The fi­nal re­port is due to the Gen­eral As­sem­bly on Jan. 1.

The Mary­land Of­fice of the Pub­lic Ac­cess Om­buds­man re­viewed 224 re­quests for pub­lic records made be­tween July 2012 and the end of 2015. A third of those, about 70, were un­con­tro­ver­sial, and12 did not con­tain enough in­for­ma­tion to es­tab­lish any break in pro­ce­dures, ac­cord­ing to the om­buds­man re­port.

In other cases, though, the school sys­tem’s re­sponses to re­quests for pub­lic doc­u­ments were con­sid­ered in­com­plete or in vi­o­la­tion.

For in­stance, in “nu­mer­ous” cases, res­i­dents re­quested a list of names and email ad­dresses of county pub­lic schools staff and were told such a file “does not ex­ist.” But the sys­tem had the in­for­ma­tion in an­other type of file and could eas­ily ac­cess it, the om­buds­man found. When an at­tor­ney for one re­quester wrote to the sys­tem, of­fi­cials pro­duced a spread­sheet with the in­for­ma­tion that same day.

“A sim­i­lar pat­tern is found re­gard­ing many other types of data re­quests,” the om­buds­man wrote. “In these and other cases, [the Howard County school sys­tem] rou­tinely an­swered the re­quest by stat­ing, for ex­am­ple, that, ‘[t]he in­for­ma­tion you are re­quest­ing does not ex­ist’ ... or ‘no such re­port ex­ists.’ ”

The sys­tem also as­sessed steep fees to pro­duce pub­lic records — such as a $1,292.75 fee charged for an in­ves­tiga­tive file per­tain­ing to the re­quester’s child — and it was “stan­dard prac­tice” to deny re­quests to waive the fees, the om­buds­man found.

Ad­di­tion­ally, while the sys­tem is ob­li­gated un­der the Mary­land Pub­lic In­for­ma­tion Act to re­spond to re­quests within 30 days, it “fre­quently” re­sponded af­ter that dead­line, the om­buds­man found.

John White, a spokesman for the Howard County school sys­tem, said prob­lems raised in the re­port have been fixed.

“To­day, those gaps have been ad­dressed and we’re fol­low­ing the law,” White said. “We have a much more ef­fi­cient process to­day than in 2012. I’m com­mit­ted to en­sur­ing that we’re not charg­ing any un­nec­es­sary fees.”

White said that now, if the sys­tem re­ceives a re­quest for pub­lic in­for­ma­tion and they don’t un­der­stand it, they call the re­quester to get clar­i­fi­ca­tion.

“We’re com­mit­ted to pro­vid­ing in­for­ma­tion,” he said. “There are no bar­ri­ers to that in­for­ma­tion.”

Christina Del­mont-Small, an El­li­cott City par­ent who was elected this month to a seat on the Howard County school board, ran on a plat­form that urged greater trans­parency. She said she felt val­i­dated by the pre­lim­i­nary find­ings.

“The with­hold­ing of records, fail­ure to re­spond to [in­for­ma­tion] re­quests and as­sess­ment of fees is what most of­ten led to com­plaints or dis­putes,” she said Thurs­day. “All of these in­di­cate a lack of trans­parency and open­ness by the school sys­tem.”

Del­mont-Small, who will be sworn in Dec. 5 for a four-year term, said she could not con­firm whether all the prob­lems had been cor­rected.

“This will be one of the many im­por­tant is­sues that have to be dis­cussed,” she said. “The Board of Ed­u­ca­tion needs to re­view the process and make sure we are fol­low­ing the law.”

She said she is in fa­vor of mak­ing pub­lic re­quests and re­sponses to those re­quests avail­able on the school sys­tem’s web­site.

Cur­rently, the web­site pro­vides in­for­ma­tion on how the pub­lic can make an in­for­ma­tion re­quest, and states its commitment “to pro­vid­ing ac­cess to pub­lic records in ac­cor­dance with the Mary­land Pub­lic In­for­ma­tion Act.”

Leg­is­la­tors cre­ated the pub­lic in­for­ma­tion om­buds­man po­si­tion in 2015 to help me­di­ate dis­putes re­gard­ing in­for­ma­tion re­quests. The po­si­tion is part of the Mary­land at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice.

The om­buds­man’s of­fice re­leased the pre­lim­i­nary Howard County re­port as part of the process to seek pub­lic com­ment be­fore a fi­nal doc­u­ment is pub­lished. Those wish­ing to pro­vide com­ment may do so by Dec. 5 via email at HB1105Com­ment@oag.state.md.us us­ing the sub­ject line “Re: HB 1105 Pre­lim­i­nary Find­ings” or by reg­u­lar mail to the Of­fice of the Pub­lic Ac­cess Om­buds­man, 200 St. Paul Place, Bal­ti­more 21202.

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