CARMICHAEL – A systematic check of how well California’s tax-supported education institutions respond to requests for public information shows a significant sample of K-12 school districts to be consistently slower to provide clearly public information than community colleges or the California State University—and earning an average failing grade on a 100-point scale.

This picture emerges in the third and final phase release of a California Public Records Act compliance audit conducted by Californians Aware (CalAware) in December, testing the responses of more than 250 agencies statewide, including half of the state’s 72 community college districts, all of its 32 public university campuses and nearly 200 local school districts.

The test queries used in the school district exercise sought a copy of the most recent pre-lawsuit claim for damages brought on behalf of a student that was settled without going to court, as well as a copy of the settlement agreement and of records showing the date of any approval given to the settlement by the board of education.

Detailed results for each campus are available on our website (follow the link from the homepage).

Overall, over half the districts failed decisively. CalAware used the email addresses provided by the districts on-line, the vast majority coming from a district’s own website. Yet a number of districts failed to reply to multiple attempts by the requester, most often to multiple email addresses for administrators at those districts. Many expressed confusion over the request for the “most recent settlement agreement entered into by the district to settle a tort claim presented on behalf of a student.” Numerous districts responded that this was “not sufficiently precise” and required more specific information, like a student’s name, before they would search for a record. Yet from those performing perfectly, this description presented no confusion and records were produced promptly. “A reasonable conclusion might be,” said CalAware Exectuve Director Emily Francke, “If you don’t want to do the job, find some way to deflect the request.”

On the other hand, more than one-fifth (21% or 41) of the 194 districts surveyed performed flawlessly (A+). A good example is Poway USD, which supplied responsive records free by email within three days of the request. Chino Valley USD and Lakeside Union SD did the same in seven days. Charter Oak USD: the same in nine days. Of those who charged any copy fee at all, Central School District supplied copies in nine days for only three cents per page.

“By their prompt and courteous responses,” Francke said, “these districts demonstrated an interest in keeping the public informed. These responses also show that a professional approach to requests for information can lead to the inference that the district is competent and cares about the people it serves. On the other hand, requesters left frustrated by the experience may well wonder who those districts believe they serve and why they are being secretive about the public information they possess.”

Francke noted that the Brown Act and some local district practices combine to make it easy for lawsuit claims and settlements to elude the public’s attention. While both claims and settlements are accessible to the public, the Brown Act does not require them to be provided unless a person expressly asks for a copy, that settlements are almost never announced after being approved in closed session, and in some cases the settlements never reach the board of education, either because they are handled by an independent joint powers insurance agency or because the superintendent has been given authority to approve settlements below a defined dollar amount without obtaining board approval.

“Even if they don’t always involve large amounts of money, settlements provide snapshots of incidents where school officials’ acts or omissions have prompted allegations of injury to students, employees or others in the community,” Francke said. “For parents and taxpayers concerned with the safe and effective operation of the schools, settlements can provide real eye-openers. But you have to ask, and as this audit shows, sometimes you have to keep asking repeatedly to get the information you’re entitled to.”