DeeDee Armstrong submitted a request in May for public information from the Stillwater school district under the state law that gives her that right.
By early last week, even after exchanging several e-mails with district officials and hiring an attorney to intercede, she still hadn’t received the information she was seeking.
“Challenging to work with, very difficult to get what you’re looking for,” was how Armstrong, of Afton, described her eight e-mail exchanges with Stillwater officials over the status of her request. Delays in producing public documents, she said, reflected poorly on them.
“When it takes three months to reply, it instills a feeling that you guys are shady, that there’s something you’re trying to hide,” she said last week after attending a forum held in Stillwater by the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information.
Armstrong had asked for e-mails and other communications between the Stillwater district’s finance director, Kristin Hoheisel, and Shakopee school district officials over possible ties between the districts.
Delays and costs associated with accessing public information have created controversies in both school districts, located at opposite corners of the metro area.
Monday’s forum drew about 40 people from seven school districts to hear Don Gemberling explain the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, a law enacted in the 1970s to open up government records.
“Too many people just don’t know what their rights are,” said Gemberling, a retired attorney. For more than 30 years, at the Minnesota Department of Administration, he worked with government agencies to comply with the law and helped citizens understand their rights.
Too many agencies, he said, unreasonably delay information requests, attempt to overcharge for copies of documents to raise revenue and sometimes even fail to respond to requests — all of which are illegal.
School districts are often the worst offenders, he said, and that view is shared by many people.
“They’re supposed to maintain that data in such a fashion that it’s easily accessible to the public,” he said.
Gemberling said at the forum that the Stillwater district was out of compliance with the law for not having a policy on its website explaining how to obtain public information.
Stillwater Superintendent Denise Pontrelli, in a statement issued after the forum, said that district officials were doing the best they could to respond to “an unusual rise in the number of data requests, as well as the volume of data requested.”
The district has hired a company to help retrieve requested e-mails, she said, and an attorney was reviewing information “to make sure private or confidential data is not released.” She also said she expected the school board will consider a new public access information policy.
“We want to ensure that the district’s procedures are reflected in a written policy available to the public, as required by state law,” she said.
Gemberling said that e-mail retrievals, obtained through keyword searches, should be accomplished in minutes. He also said that many requests are unreasonably delayed because of unnecessary legal reviews.
“Many school districts are really controlled by their attorneys,” he said.
Citizen scrutiny of the Stillwater district intensified after Pontrelli floated a proposal to close three elementary schools and the board approved her plan by a 5-2 vote. Public records requests accelerated, with a similar situation developing in Shakopee.
Armstrong said connections on Facebook and other social media have fueled citizen activism.
“You don’t think you’re on an island looking for information,” she said. “The Shakopee parents and the Stillwater parents have kind of banded together. That means there is an added pressure on the districts for the data, and I would say that social media helps people compare other districts.”
The day after the forum, the Stillwater district informed Armstrong’s attorney that her data request would be available at the end of the week.