News Story

School District Thwarts Transparency With Unnecessary Costs

The Freedom of Information Act has long played a vital role in bringing to light matters that government officials would rather keep hidden. Its role in exposing details of the Flint water contamination crisis has become a case study in the use of open records laws by journalists to expose a potentially tragic government failure.

While government agencies often claim to support transparency, their actions frequently appear intended to thwart the release of public information.

The Lansing school district provides the most recent example. Michigan Capitol Confidential submitted a FOIA request to the district asking for information contained in a certain database. The same request went to about a dozen other school districts. Eight of those other districts sent the information in electronic form with no charge. Others made its release contingent on paying costs, the highest of which was $335.

And then there was Lansing, which demanded $688 to send hard copy records containing the information. This fee included a $411 charge for producing 8,228 paper pages and another $196 for mailing.

Michigan Capitol Confidential questioned the costs and stated it would prefer the records be sent electronically in an email.

In response, Debbie Sever, who handles FOIA requests for Lansing Schools, said in an email, “The District will not be sending the information electronically.”

Michigan Capitol Confidential pointed out that the district’s own policy allows people to request electronic copies of documents as long as it is “within the technological capabilities of the District.”

But Mark Coscarella, a deputy superintendent of the district, responded by saying the district would only send the information in electronic format if a new FOIA request was submitted asking for this.

“The original FIOA request did not stipulate non-paper therefore we are not obligated to provide them electronically,” Coscarella said in an email.

The district's response resembles a type of union job action called “working to rule.” Unions can effectively slow or stop production by following detailed work rules — which sometimes clutter labor contracts — to the letter.

FOIA is not just for news organizations. Citizens also have the right and sometimes a need to acquire public records. Most would balk at an unnecessary $688 charge.

In 2015, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy had a similar dispute over charges for paper versus electronic records, this one involving the state Liquor Control Commission. The commission wanted to charge $1,550 for 6,000 paper copies of information the Mackinac Center wanted in an electronic format. The Mackinac Center sued, after which the commission agreed to provide the information electronically for $50.

Michigan State University also used its own discretion with an open records request the Mackinac Center submitted in 2011. MSU redacted so much material from its response that entire pages were blacked out. One of the redacted items happened to be a previously published Michigan Capitol Confidential article. MSU said records that contained information not responsive to the request were redacted.