A June 9th Douglas County School District Board of Education meeting produced preliminary approval for the 2016-17 budget that includes a new full-time position dedicated to filling Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) requests, and included feisty exchanges over school choice and the results of an independent investigation into two board members’ treatment of a student.
Rob Ross, legal counsel for DCSD, said the new staff position, which is budgeted for $56,000 in salary and benefits, is required because the number of CORA requests the district gets has increased greatly.
Currently, Osasu Edoigiawerie, who acts as the paralegal/public records manager for Dougco, fills all CORA requests. However, Edoigiawerie is unable to get her own normal work done because of the volume of requests.
The department needs someone to focus entirely on the effort, Ross said.
CORA requests are generally handled through the legal department to be sure private information protected by law is not divulged.
Complete Colorado attempted to call several other large districts in the state to compare policies, but not all were reached by press time. However, it is uncommon for a school district to hire someone exclusively for the purpose of filling CORA requests.
“They are overwhelmed,” Board of Education President Meghann Silverthorn said Friday by phone. “They are spending so much time on it, it’s incredible. We want to fulfill both the spirit and letter of the law but we just don’t have the staff to do it.”
Colorado law states that all requests must be filled within three working days from the time they are received unless an extension (with an accompanying reason) is requested. If the extensionis granted, the request must be filled in no more than seven additional days. Douglas County is behind on many of its current CORA requests. For example, Complete Colorado filed a request for emails on April 25 and the district to date has not completed the request.
The amount recovered from the district is only a fraction of what the new hire will be paid. According to Paula Hans, public information officer for Douglas County, the district had billed for just $3,060 as of June 6. Four requests by Complete Colorado have amounted to $1,590.
The amount charged for CORA requests is also set by law. Statute allows up to $30 per hour to gather the information, but the first hour must be free. Some have figured a way to avoid paying under that statutory language.
Between January 5 and May 2, Dougco filled 230 requests, 12 of which were from Complete Colorado.
Of the other 218, nearly half (101) were filed by one woman, Elizabeth (or Liz) Wagner. Wagner is an activist in the district and a regular contributor to the Facebook page SPEAK (Supportive Parents Educators and Kids) for DCSD.
Wagner’s requests include everything from invoices for specific services rendered by the district to emails among board members. Many of her requests are sent within minutes of each other.
For example, on March 30 Wagner filed 11 CORAs between 1:54 p.m. and 4:51 p.m. And on April 5 she filed 26 requests between 3:58 p.m. and 4:37 p.m. Many of her requests don’t require official CORA requests as they cover information that is readily available on the district’s website.
Silverthorn said she wished constituents would work with the district to accomplish their goals, not tie it up and cost it more money.
“I understand people want public information, but it feels like volume and type have a specific agenda and focus behind them,” Silverthorn said. “I would like to know what some of these folks are trying to accomplish. I want to work with them to create goals, rather than spend tons of staff time. It’s an incredible amount of time. District staff is not getting their actual district business done. “
OTHER BOARD MEETING NOTABLES:
Wendy Vogel asked repeatedly to amend the budget to defund the newly created School Choice Grant Program (SCGP) while the district waits to see if the Supreme Court of the United States will take on an appeal over the district’s original Choice Scholarship Program (CSP). The CSP program gave state money to students who wish to attend a private school, regardless of whether or not those schools offered faith-based education. The program was struck down last summer by the Colorado Supreme Court under Colorado’s Blaine Amendment, which prohibits aid to “sectarian” institutions. The new program, SCGP, excludes faith-based schools.
After much discussion the board voted 4-3 to keep the program in place.
On June 9, U.S. District Judge Marcia Kreiger ruled against the Institute for Justice, which had asked her to issue an injunction against the new program and require it to include faith-based schools. Krieger’s ruling allows the program to move forward without faith-based schools while the district waits to hear from the U.S. Supreme Court.
Finally, Silverthorn announced that an independent investigator’s report into the treatment of student Grace Davis by Silverthorn and fellow board member Judith Reynolds will be made public during a June 21 work session.
Silverthorn said that fellow board member Doug Benevento would chair that portion of the meeting. Benevento is an attorney.
Board members Anne-Marie Lemieux, Vogel, and David Ray appeared to be unhappy with the decision.
Silverthorn said she did not choose Lemieux, Vogel, or Ray because of their obvious bias against her and Reynolds.
“(Benevento) is the only one I felt comfortable delegating that part to,” she said. “(Lemieux, Vogel, and Ray) objected to the investigation and then tried to make Judi and I pay for it. Their idea of due process is not very robust.”
Silverthorn said that regardless of the outcome, she will not step down from her duties on the board or as president, taking exception to the idea that more than 600 emails have been sent asking for the her and Reynold’s resignations.
“I’ve been through each and every email,” she said. “Fewer than two dozen people actually sat down and wrote their own letter.”
Silverthorn was referring to a form letter sent out by the groups Voices for Public Education and Douglas County Parents asking parents and students to return to the board, she said. However, the board does not have the authority to ask for or force a resignation.
“If I had any inkling that I broke any laws I would have already taken that up on my own,” Silverthorn said. I was duly elected. Every last one of us was elected to do a job.”
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