The school treasurer, Ms Collier, is the designated person who responds to any requests from the public for open documents, including anything produced by the school board. Don’t ask why the school board can’t do this themselves, it is just the way things are done in Grandview.
My recent experience in asking for some documents was instructive for learning what the school thinks about their responsibilities as custodians of public documents, and their willingness to do the job that the state set out clearly in the Open Meeting Laws. The documents they finally posted bring up more questions then they answered. Jump down for the TL; DR, but first some establishing info.
Some points to begin
When I ask the school for documents, it isn’t for fun. I looked back in my emails, I have made one request for copies of facility contracts with consultants back in 2017, I asked for an expense spreadsheet in 2014. Those were vital documents for understanding the reasoning the board used to pass resolutions. I don’t ask often, and I don’t ask for much. My requests are important.
The school board is in the middle of the largest project it has taken on in decades, building a new middle school, and renovating the other schools. Millions of dollars in contracts are being signed by the board in a very short time. The way we keep public bodies safe from the corruption that can result from so much money changing hands is for the public to increase the level of auditing of all actions taken by the board. The files I asked for were the audio recordings of the school board meetings, necessary for understand the full story on the board’s actions. Read my post on the problems the board has had in the past in the severely short meeting minutes the board produces.
I asked for the audio files from 2018 meetings, and the 2019 meeting audio files as they become available. I made it clear in my request that I would be posting those files on my blog, so anyone in Grandview (or the world) could listen to the recordings. My hope was to lead them to realize the best policy for the board would be to post all the files on the school website
I’m not a lawyer
I don’t have professional knowledge of the Ohio Open meeting laws, but the laws don’t really need expertise to understand. The Sunshine Laws manual makes it clear that almost all documents produced by governmental bodies in Ohio are open – some exceptions are clearly explained, but most are open. Board meeting notes, and audio recordings of meetings, are open documents. Once given to the public, community members can redistribute them in any way they want, including posting them on the internet in Blogs.
I’ve been posting local government documents here on my blog (and a previous version) for more than 15 years. If there were any way the board could have legally stopped me, they would have done it long ago. A big part of the reason I started to post the minutes from board and council meetings, back in 2003, was to shame them into posting their own minutes on their own websites. They didn’t like seeing me posting school meeting minutes on a personal blog, but they had no legal way to stop it. I was successful in pushing both the council, and much later the school, into creating pages on their websites so the meeting minutes could be downloaded.
My request for school documents
On 3/15/19, I made my first request for some audio files of the school board meetings. I asked specifically for all of the audio recordings made during the 2018 school year (which would be about 17 files). I also asked for the audio files made during 2019 meetings, and to be sent any more the board made during the rest of the year. This was sent to school treasurer Collier, and one of the board members.
The response was – silence.
I sent another email on 3/27/19, asking what happened to my request. I was told by Ms Collier that “She would get back to me shortly”.
I waited. And more waiting.
Finally I received an email from one of the board members on 4/12/19, almost a month after my first request for files. This board member told me this excuse for the delay –
Ms Collier emailed back and was waiting on advice from counsel on for giving audio to be posted on a non school district website.
There is no possible reason the school treasurer should be checking with the school’s legal counsel to answer questions about audio files created by the school board during meetings. They are open documents, and just like the school board meetings themselves are open door, any recordings made during these meetings are fully open to Grandview residents. There is no possible legal restriction the board can make on the use of the document after the board releases them.
So – some guesses for what is happening here.
Ms Collier is testing an excuse to deny the release of the audio files to me. I have read some shaky reasoning from school administrators in the past, this one would jump right to the top of the list of lame, illegal attempts to keep school documents hidden.
My guess is the “I need to talk to a lawyer” excuse was a way to keep the school board member happy, and Collier though the board member would swallow the excuse and keep it to themselves. But that’s overkill – something else is going on.
The treasurer gives it up
I quickly sent an email to Ms Collier and Mr Culp, asking them if they were really seriously attempting to involve the school’s legal council in a move to block the release of the audio files.
“Please explain to me why Ms Collier is asking legal counsel for advice on an issue that has no question – the laws are crystal clear on the audio files, and the board’s requirement to provide them when requested. – JW”
Later that same day, Ms Collier replied to my email, and said she was posting the requested audio files on the school’s website.
“In response to your request, the District has posted all audio recordings it has available at the following link on the district’s website. Going forward, the district will continue to post any recordings from future meetings at the same location. Having fully responded to your request, we consider this matter closed. – Ms Collier “
The matter is not closed
Where there is smoke there might be fire. The whole issue of the audio files from board meetings is sending up big warning clouds.
First, it took the school 30 days to provide the files that I requested. All the treasurer needed to do was to locate the folder the school uses to store meeting audio files, and drop them into an email addressed to me. It shouldn’t have taken her more than 30 minutes to send these files. Why did the school need 30 days to partially respond to my request for documents?
Second, the treasurer was attempting to use the school’s legal council to deny me the files, and keep them hidden. I have dealt with slow responses in the past, but this was the first time they used a threat of legal moves to chase me away. Something about these audio files has the school board reacting like they are worth fighting over.
Third, the audio files that were posted to the school website are not the full records from 2018, as I requested. There were only audio files from four meeting in 2018 posted to the school website, as of 4/15/19. Where are the rest of the 2018 recordings?
Finally, if you look at the audio files that are posted to the school website, you can see that there is a suspicious mix of files types – some are .m4a format, which is the native file type used by Mac computers. Some of the audio files are mp3 format, the more standard file type used by a lot of audio recorders. You might expect that one or the other file format would be used by the school, and then the files could be dropped onto the school website. The mix of files used suggest that some of the audio files have been modified in some way – maybe cuts were made to remove some content, and then the file was saved in a different file format. I have not listened to the files carefully, but unless the school used professional help to modify the audio files, cuts in the audio should be apparent.
Where do we go from here?
I’m going to be requesting answers from the school administration and the school board to the questions above about the audio files from board meetings. My experience with the board – and the “we consider this matter closed” warning from the school – tells me that they will probably stonewall any further requests for answers.
Here is an honest question for the parents and residents of Grandview Heights who read my blog. Do you care about getting answers from the school? Or are you happy to sit back, and leave the board alone as they spend millions of your tax dollars on facilities over the next few years?
As far as I am concerned, they board started down the route to involving lawyers when they stated they needed “advice from counsel” on the audio files. It might require a lawyer to get a straight answer from the board on the audio files issue. Is that were we need to go?
I requested the audio files of the school board meeting for this year and last year. The treasurer talked about using legal counsel to keep the files hidden. Instead of the 30 minutes the task should have taken, the school treasurer took 30 days to post part of the requested files to the school website. Some of the files are missing, some of them have changed format, which suggest the audio files were manipulated before they were posted. This stinks, and I’m asking if we should investigate for the full answers to my questions.