LORAIN — The school district is taking more than a month to release requested information in some cases, according to records request logs from early July to Wednesday from the district.
According to Ohio Revised Code, public records include documents relating to municipalities and school districts, excluding things like medical records, ongoing police investigations and individual student information, and should be “promptly prepared and made available for inspection to any person at all reasonable times during regular business hours.”
Since July 5, according to the district log, it has had 30 records requests, with some seeking multiple records. Logs show 10 unfulfilled requests from Aug. 24 to Oct. 31, per district records. These include requests from media outlets — including The Chronicle-Telegram — the Ohio Department of Education, at least one parent, a law firm representing the East Cleveland School Board, and Lorain’s own school board. There has been some overlap in information requested, including records regarding fights within the district since the beginning of the school year.
Requests are filed through Josh Hill, district treasurer and chief strategy and innovation officer.
“We process them as fast (as we can),” Hill said. “The majority of these requests we don’t house. Typically we have to send them out and I get them and legal will go through it and redact … that’s what kind of bogs down the process.”
One parent requested student information Aug. 24 and, while they have been updated of the status of their request, has yet to receive the information, according to the district’s log. Hill said that request is ongoing and involves the school’s legal department.
Other fulfilled requests took upwards of a month. A request for student information by the Ohio Department of Education has been pending since Sept. 25.
The Chronicle-Telegram requested emails regarding the district’s switch to standards-based grading on Sept. 24 and has yet to receive the information as of Wednesday. Other requests from the beginning of October also are pending, including information on graduation rates and fights within the district.
Attorney Tim Smith, a founding member of the National Freedom of Information Coalition and the Media Law Committee of the state bar, said while the Ohio Supreme Court has never firmly defined what returning records in a timely manner means, there should be little delay in providing things like emails requested by The Chronicle.
“They’ve got those emails, so there’s no reason why there should be a delay in providing them to you,” he said. “They’ve got to either provide those emails or tell you what the exemption is and again there shouldn’t be any delay in that.”
And in the case of documents requiring redaction — such as those containing student names — he estimated it should take a week, and, if an exemption is made, the district should provide an explanation quickly.
The two methods to fight record-request delays, Smith said, are to file a lawsuit or a file a complaint with the Ohio Court of Claims. In records requested since July, neither the school board nor Chronicle has filed such complaints.
School Board president Tony Dimacchia said it is the board’s job to conduct due diligence on the school’s use of funds, hiring processes and other practices. He said the number of requests is in part because of Hardy and other administrators’ inexperience, and said he understands the delays are not explicitly Hill’s fault, as he is stuck “in the middle.”
“It clearly puts him in a compromising position when he reports to the Board of Education,” Dimacchia said. “He is our (the board’s) secretary to get us our information, but yet he can’t get that information until he goes to the CEO.”
Dimacchia is listed in the log under three requests since July, two showing fulfilled with one concerning “school violence” from Oct. 29 as pending — but the board has been in the habit of requesting information since last year. There have been contentions in whether the district has provided requested information since a records request Aug. 4, 2017, alleging the Academic Distress Commission had violated Sunshine laws when hiring CEO David Hardy.
Dimacchia and Hill exchanged emails, provided to The Chronicle-Telegram by Dimacchia, regarding the request, with clarifications and further questions sent to the district Aug. 10 and Sept. 18, 2017. He said the district has yet to fully fulfill those requests.
In a request from July 31, 2018, Dimacchia requested communications regarding Hardy’s attorney giving legal opinion on setting the board’s agenda. Hill responded that there are no public records to provide, as documents containing attorney-client privileged communications are withheld. Dimacchia contends the firm’s opinion was forwarded to a third party, excluding it from that privilege.
In that same email, Dimacchia also requested communications regarding the “firing, nonrenewal or release of all principals,” which was first filed April 5, 2018. When told the request was too vague and the records did not exist, Dimacchia threatened a motion with the public records court.
Hill responded, “That said, although not required, the District has attempted to locate the records which it believes you seek — a search that returned roughly 4,000 documents due to the vague search terms it was forced to use given that no principals were fired, non-renewed or released. To that end, you will be provided with documents responsive to what the District believes you are requesting regarding communications involving Turnaround Principals.”
When questioned, Hill said the district cannot provide information it does not have.
“If there’s not something to provide, I can’t provide it, he said. “… I provide whatever is available, but sometimes there’s nothing available.”
Dimacchia said these public records requests were not necessary before House Bill 70.
“A lot of stuff that we’re requesting, we want to know what’s going on,” he said. “We want to know how they’re making their decisions — how they come up with these people that they’re hiring, where they’re coming from. … We’re requesting that because we deserve to know. They’re spending our tax dollars on it; we need to know that stuff.”
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