BRADENTON -- The Manatee County School District has received an average of 40 public-records requests each month this year, with both reporters and citizens trying to dig deeper into education issues by examining everything from personnel files to personal emails.
The month of October doubled that average, with 80 records requests sent to the district in the 31-day span. The requests sought the district to release files and documents related to a number of hot-button issues, most of which are considered open according to Florida Sunshine Law.
For Steve Valley, the director of community and family engagement, who has been with the district since August 2013, that was an all-time monthly record. The majority of the requests for October have been completed, Valley said Friday. His office handles the records request through Linda Lambert, the administrative secretary and public records custodian, who came on board this summer.
"We look to provide these documents as quickly and as accurately as we can," Valley said, praising Lambert's efforts to respond to the high number of requests.
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But for some community members, that's not enough.
"The District's continued disregard for the timely production of public records and the unreasonable charges therefore, is in clear contradiction of the District's pledge of transparency and the Legislature's intent under Chapter 119, Florida Statutes," Michelle Jime
nez-Baserva, a former district employee, wrote in a recent email to the district when she felt she was being stonewalled from obtaining a public record.
In October, many of the requests were for emails sent between district officials or prominent community members, according to the public record request log.
For a district that's aiming to rebuild the public trust, avoid other costly Sunshine lawsuits and promote "transparency," public records requests are one of the basic ways for the public to get information. But the process can often get contentious.
The district is allowed to charge for records and estimates hourly fees for various employees to do the records searches. Members of the public also send multiple follow-up requests, and some have accused the district of not being transparent by withholding records. Outdated technology, short staffs and requests for older documents can slow down the timing of a request. The process is also hampered when district officials or board members either do not turn over requests or do not respond to Valley's department when contacted.
"It's not as easy as it sometimes appears," Valley said.
The state law does not define how long entities have to respond to requests, stating that districts have to act in "good faith" and respond in a reasonable amount of time. The law sets guidelines for when entities want to charge for photocopying information, but doesn't set strict guidelines on fees that agencies can charge for records, stating the fees charged have to be based on actual costs incurred while processing the request.
The district takes an average of two days to close out requests once they are acknowledged, according to an update Valley gave the school board last month. But some requests, including a Bradenton Herald request for personal emails from Aranibar, can take over a month to complete. The request for Aranibar's email went through multiple iterations over the period of time to narrow down the specific request and cost $91.
Frustrated with what Jimenez-Baserva said was a "continued disregard" for the Sunshine Law, Jimenez-Baserva has filed claims with the Manatee County Sheriff's Office over records requests, and has copied the media on requests sent to the district, trying prompt the district to take action and complete her requests.
Jimenez-Baserva is not the only member of the public who has expressed frustration with the district's records request process. Christina Sket, an active community member, has criticized the district's process in emails sent to the district, and copied to the Bradenton Herald. A number of Sket's recent requests involved information about Julie Aranibar, the current board chair who lost her seat last week to Mary Cantrell.
"I have been patient in numerous requests for verification regarding statements made by Ms. Aranibar," Sket wrote in a recent email, after she was informed the district does not have or maintain records about degrees held by board members.
'We ask for patience'
Statewide, Florida is known for having some of the strongest open government laws, forcing governmental and public agencies to be transparent to the community in their business. In recent years, Florida's open government laws have been under attack, and there has been a significant increase in the number of complaints received by the First Amendment Foundation's hotline regarding government abuses of the right-to-know laws, according to information posted on the First Amendment Foundation's website, a nonprofit dedicated to helping the public and the media understand and navigate the sunshine laws.
But with the high volume of requests and only one dedicated staff member working the request, the turnaround time for the requests can get bogged down, Valley contends. Other factors, like an official's failure to work with Lambert in a timely manner, can slow down the process.
"We ask for patience as we do these requests," Valley said.
The district currently has at least three outstanding requests related to emails and information sent and distributed by board member Dave "Watchdog" Miner, a board member who champions transparency and often calls upon Superintendent Rick Mills to make information available to him and the community.
All three requests relate to Miner's involvement with the district's plan to implement armed security officers in the district's elementary schools. The contract with Sarasota Security Patrol was canceled after the district violated the Sunshine Law by not properly advertising a meeting of the evaluation committee that recommended Sarasota Security Patrol be awarded the contract.
Miner was a vocal critic of the plan from the start, calling the armed guards "rent-a-cops" and lobbying the district to pursue other options.
The open-records requests, one from a media outlet, one from a law firm and the third from the president of Sarasota Security Patrol, are requesting copies of Miner's emails and phone messages regarding the guards, both from his district-issued email and his personal email, which is considered a public record under Sunshine laws.
Miner has yet to respond to Lambert's attempts to reach him for the records, Valley said. The requests came into the office on Sept. 28, Oct. 1 and Oct. 21, according to the district's log.
A combination of the breadth of the request and the attorney-client privilege has made processing the request cumbersome, Miner said on Friday.
"We've got a ways to go with it," Miner said. "That's the problem with making a broad request."
Miner said he expects to have an invoice to the district within 10 days and said his secretary has been in contact with the district on the requests. Miner is working on figuring out what an appropriate invoice will be to cover the cost of pulling and redacting information.
"I'm happy to do it," he said. "There's nothing I'm trying to hold back."
'Reasonable' time, fees
Routine requests, such as the district's salary database, the staff directory or the log of who requested records in the last month, can often be completed the same day the request came in. Other requests take longer to complete. Florida statutes don't mandate how long responding to a request should take, but requires agencies to respond to requests "in good faith."
If the request takes a lot of time to put together and requires extensive work for the staff, the district is allowed to charge a "reasonable fee" based on the cost incurred to prepare the information under the Sunshine Law. Once the invoice has been paid, the district will start processing the request, which can take anywhere from two hours to days to get the request completed.
A records request filed in August by the Bradenton Herald sought to obtain the personnel files, including salaries, benefits and paid time off for members of the district's leadership team -- 19 individuals in total. The district estimated the total cost of the request at more than $2,800, which included retrieving the files from a vault and redacting information such as social security numbers. The estimate to complete that task, once it had been paid for, was 10 business days.
"The more resources that we have to put into the public records, the more we're taking away from the classroom," Valley said. He noted the person in IT who does the email searches is also in charge of helping teachers and staff implement the new email system and other technology initiatives.
The talk of the community dictates the records requests, and when a contentious issue arises, the district sees an increase in the number of related records requests.
In August and September, the district was hit with public records requests regarding the contract with Sarasota Security Patrol, including requests for information on the background of the guards and copies of a 28-page report sent to the district by a competing company that did not win the bidding process.
"You tend to see an uptick in the number of requests for those specific subjects," Valley said.
While the requests may get backed up, Valley said, public records requests can be one of the best ways for community members to get information about the school district.
"It shows that the school district is important to the community," Valley said.
During a school board meeting in October, Valley started an impromptu presentation on the district's public records requests, where he included stats on the number of requests surrounding districts received from July to September. From July to September -- a time period half during the summer months and half during the opening of the school year -- the Manatee County district had 177 requests. During the same time frame, Sarasota County School District got 48 requests, according to Valley's presentation. For the Marion County School District, it was 43, according to Valley's presentation.
Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.