District seeks to limit 'unduly burdensome' public records requests

Elena Kadvany / Palo Alto Weekly

Facing a 453 percent increase in the number of Public Records Act requests filed this year, the Palo Alto school district is looking to focus "overly broad" requests that have resulted in a backlog of tens of thousands of documents.

The school board will discuss Tuesday night a staff proposal to address this backlog. When a records request has more than 5,000 responsive pages, the district will ask the person who made the request to narrow it. 

"The district seeks to provide complete responses to CPRA (California Public Records Act) requests where possible," Komey Vishakan, the district's policy and legal compliance manager, wrote in a staff report. "Overly broad requests, however, impose financial and other burdens on the district and inhibit it from responding to CPRA requests from other requesters in a timely manner."

There have been two "notable surges" in records requests since May 2017, when the district received 63 requests and again in March, when 44 requests were filed.

Parent Kathy Jordan, who is running for a seat on the school board in November, is behind the bulk of requests that cross the proposed 5,000-page threshold. For her largest request, filed last May for phone logs, electronic communications and calendars for a former employee over a four-year period, the district has identified just over 300,000 responsive emails. 

Jordan's requests mostly focus on employee communications and conduct related to the handling of student sexual violence at Palo Alto High School, an issue she has become outspoken about since a reported campus sexual assault was made public in the media last May. She has also filed requests for correspondence on instructional minutes and board member communications. Many of her dozens of requests remain unfilled. 

"If there was no employee misconduct and no mismanagement at PAUSD, perhaps there would be no need for public records requests," Jordan wrote in an email to the Weekly about the staff proposal. "Parents and the public have a right to know the truth as these are our children and these are our taxes. Employee misconduct has affected students and their education, and mismanagement the same."

When requests are "unduly burdensome, the district does not have the resources, and is not required to respond to such requests," Vishakan writes in a proposed letter to use to respond to such requests.

The response letter cites two legal cases that the district believes justifies its position. In Fredericks v. Superior Court, a trial court initially ruled against a citizen's request to the city of San Diego and the San Diego Police Department for six month's of burglary and identity theft records, which an officer said would take over two work weeks to complete. A Court of Appeal remanded the case back to the trial court to consider "relevant competing public interest factors, which may properly include considerations about a fiscal and workload burden being imposed upon a public agency by a particular request."

In Bertoli v. City of Sebastopol, a trial court ruled that a Public Records Act request for emails or other electronically stored data on the hard drives of past and present city officials and employees, including both municipal computers and private electronic devices, was "clearly frivolous" and awarded costs and attorneys' fees to the city.

An appeals court reversed the attorneys fees and costs, despite the fact that it found the request to be "overly aggressive, unfocused and poorly drafted to achieve their desired outcomes."

"Indeed, under the PRA, a governmental agency is only obliged to disclose public records that can be located with reasonable effort and cannot be subjected to a 'limitless' disclosure obligation," the appeals court wrote in its decision.

For requests with 5,000 or fewer responsive pages, Vishakan proposes reviewing and releasing records in the order the request was received. The district cannot work on more than one request per person at any given time, "unless resources permit otherwise," she wrote.

In other business Tuesday, the board will take action on next steps for developing a master plan for Cubberley Community Center, including a proposed cost-share agreement with the city of Palo Alto for a consultant who will help the two agencies develop a vision for the Middlefield Road site. If the contract is approved, Concordia LLC will take charge of the community effort to plan for the 35-acre site, of which 27 acres are owned by the school district (which leases it to the city) and 8 acres are owned by the city.

The city and the school district plan to spend more than $600,000 on the planning effort and accompanying environmental reviews (the contract with Concordia is for up to $565,972), with the cost split between the two governing bodies. 

The school board is also set to vote on a revised "community relations" resolution developed in response to reports of racism and discrimination in the wake of the renaming of two district middle schools; adopt the 2018-19 budget; vote to place a bond measure and a separate term-limits measure on the November ballot; hear an update on the implementation of new social-emotional learning curriculum; and discuss data on A-G college requirements for the class of 2017, among other items. The meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. at 25 Churchill Ave. View the full agenda here.

Read the original article here.

Carolyn Pires