The South Washington County school district recently came under fire from parents, community members and open-government groups over Superintendent Keith Jacobus’ call for revisions to the state freedom of information laws.
As of last week, however, Jacobus said he planned to back off the issue after talking with legislators.
“It’s not an issue that we’re going to talk about or pursue,” he said. “I think it’s important for people to realize, this was not about trying to limit people’s access.”
Nevertheless, the debate that ensued after a recent school board meeting shed light on the sometimes tense push-and-pull that public officials can feel in the evermore complex information age.
The debate started at a lightly attended school board meeting Jan. 9, in which the superintendent laid out the district’s legislative priorities. Jacobus told board members that the district often found it difficult to comply with the Data Practices Act, which guarantees the public’s access to government records, because of limited help and an unprecedented surge in information requests.
He said the school district should be given more flexibility in deciding whether to grant data requests to keep district officials from being overwhelmed by frivolous requests or those that are too narrow in scope.
The comments set off immediate criticism from some parents and community members, who said they worried that giving the school district more discretion would be “detrimental to journalism and maintaining an informed citizenry at large,” said Jonathan Kealing, director of interactive properties at Minneapolis-based Public Radio International.
“When they passed the Data Practices Act back years ago, the goal was to reduce the potential for abuse — where unless it’s stated by law, data and information documents are supposed to be publicly available,” said Kealing, chairman of the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalist’s Freedom of Information Committee. After learning Thursday about Jacobus’ decision to back away from the proposal, Kealing said he was “pleased that they’re not going to be pushing this priority with the Legislature anymore.”
Jacobus agreed that “it needs to be available to people. But we’ve had some difficulties in the amount of time that it takes” to process requests, he said to those present, which included state Sens. Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport, and Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, and state Rep. JoAnn Ward, DFL-Woodbury.
“We think all of our information is transparent — it needs to be transparent,” Jacobus said. But, he added, it’s “the cumbersome aspects” of handling all the requests that makes it difficult to both follow the law and “keep the district moving.”
At a board meeting two weeks later, Woodbury parent Andrea Mayer-Bruestle challenged Jacobus’ stance.
“That is no way to encourage citizens’ belief that the district is truly attempting to be more transparent,” she said.
Blane Huppert, a parent of three children who attend local schools, said he was wary of proposals concerning “modification to government data practices that would require general interest.
“Well, who would define general interest?” he asked pointedly during a telephone interview last week.
After the Jan. 9 meeting, the local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, a nonprofit that advocates for open government, sent letters to legislators urging them not to change the law.
“Schools spend tons and tons of dollars, and the idea that the public shouldn’t know how that money is spent — on what and on whom — it just shouldn’t be that way,” said coalition spokesman Don Gemberling.