Howard schools faulted on openness
Preliminary report finds officials failed to comply with information requests
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.