The Howard County Public Schools system delayed, denied and otherwise made it difficult for some residents to obtain documents and data under the Maryland Public Information Act, according to a preliminary report from the state’s public access ombudsman.
But it’s unclear if the incidents outlined in the preliminary report represent a pattern or occasional lapses in the district’s compliance with the state’s open record laws.
Lisa Kershner, the public access ombudsman, declined to comment on the 10-page preliminary report, saying she was still in the fact-gathering stage.
John White, a spokesman for the school system, praised the preliminary report.
“It seems to be a well-done report,” White said, adding that many of the issues highlighted in the document are older and have since been resolved.
“I think it’s a credit to the superintendent (Renee Foose) that there is significant progress from 2012 to now and it can be seen as a progression through those years.”
A final report, which was requested earlier this year by the General Assembly, is due at the end of the year.
The preliminary report also seeks comments from the public on related concerns between the public and the Howard County School System.
Kershner’s report highlights a number of instances in which the school system denied having documents it had or refused to tell persons making requests that the information was available in other documents.
The report represents an initial preliminary finding of facts but does not contain a full analysis of the school system’s legal compliance with the Maryland Public Information Act. That will be part of the final report due at the end of the year.
The school system, according to the report, also routinely refused to issue waivers of fees even though few such requests were ever made in the nearly four years the ombudsman’s review covers. In one such case, the system denied a fee waiver request even though all but one of the 10 years of requested data could be retrieved in 15 minutes or less and is subject to no fee under the state law that makes the first two hours of document retrieval and review free of charge.
The state legislature earlier this year passed a law requiring Kershner, in her newly created office, to review a sample of nearly four years of public information act requests made of Howard County schools. She was tasked with inspecting the validity and integrity of the responses.
Kerschner reviewed 224 requests made between July 2012 and December 2015.
About one-third of the cases did not contain any evidence of a violation of state law or are otherwise in dispute.
About a dozen cases contained insufficient evidence to determine compliance, and 20 more from 2013 and 2014 had no underlying print or digital records and could only be identified through a school system spreadsheet containing summary data on requests.
About half of the cases have yet to be reviewed.
The report also notes the use of “standard” answers to requests for documents such as names and email addresses of employees. The responses contained no explanation of the availability of other types of records that would be responsive to the request or address whether the school system could extract the requested information using ordinary functions of its database and records systems.
A similar pattern was found for other data requests, such as those for aggregate grades, number of special education students receiving diplomas or documentation of funds used to cover settlement agreements and court costs related to lawsuits.
In these cases the school system “routinely answered the request stating that the information you are requesting does not exist” or “no such report exists.”
White, who has been with the system since December, said he is the custodian of school records and now responsible for ensuring both the training of staff for compliance with the law and in ensuring that records are released in a timely manner.
“We will use some of the findings to train staff on the details of the law,” White said, adding that he is also watching issues related to fees for documents.
“I’ve made sure we are not charging any unnecessary fees,” White said.