By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
The first time I tried to visit the school district, in a small building halfway to Louisiana, it was closed. They'd had a meeting, a woman told me across the highway. It was a few minutes to four, so there wasn't much I could do about it. But the second time -- an hour earlier, on a Friday -- some big, gray-haired guy was just locking up as I, sore from the road, pulled into the parking lot. I asked him if I could drop off a public information request real quick; wouldn't take more than a couple of minutes to write it out. No dice. He looked over his shoulder at his truck, said he had an appointment and backed away. I said I'd return, knowing the place was an hour outside Houston, not yet realizing the next week was spring break. It's not like I could've cussed him out. That would've messed up the experiment.
In February and March, I drove 1,683 miles in Harris and its surrounding seven counties, visiting 63 school districts to test for compliance with the Texas Public Information Act, which is designed not just for reporters like me but for everyone. The trip wasn't without complications. I got lost in Magnolia and was pulled over in Angleton, and halfway through the journey I realized different districts take different weeks off for spring break, which was a real kink. But after visiting all 63 of them, here's what I found:
• 44 percent of districts violated the part of the public information act that prohibits them from inquiring why the information is being requested.
• 30 percent of districts incorrectly said they had ten business days to fulfill the request. The public information act does mention ten days, but requests should be fulfilled "promptly."
• 10 percent of districts did not respond at all.
• Charges for the information varied widely from district to district, ranging from zero to $34.
When the 44 percent asked what I was up to, I replied that I'd rather not say. That was my right. I wanted to see how each district would deal with someone who'd just walked in off the street. I asked all of them for the superintendent's salary, the electricity payments for the last two years and projected costs for this year, and the procedure for conducting background checks. The requests were scatterbrained, and that was the point. What I was really testing for was compliance with the state law designed to keep information open to the public.
My search was like that riddle where the old man shows up at the border once a month on a donkey, carrying a jar of broken glass, a jar of torn-up paper and a jar of oregano. The border agents don't like the look of this fellow, so they make him dump the contents of the three jars onto a table. They search the glass for diamonds, the paper for money, and the oregano for marijuana. But they don't find anything illegal. So they shrug their shoulders and let the old man -- and the glass and the paper and the oregano -- cross the border, knowing they'll see him again in a month. The question: What's the man smuggling?
The answer: Donkeys.
I wasn't really looking for salaries or electric bills or security procedures. I was looking for openness and efficiency, which I did find in part. But I also found a few donkeys.
Curiosity got the best of many administrators who couldn't help wondering why I wanted the info. But the public information act doesn't let them ask.
"It's immaterial why you want it," says Joe Larsen, a Houston attorney who sits on the board of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. "If it's public, it's public."
Larsen argues that administrators (often unintentionally) intimidate the public by asking why information is being requested, inevitably putting the requester on the defensive. The same goes for an administrator trying to figure out which agency the visitor represents.
"'Who are you trying to get this for?' That's closely akin to saying, 'Why do you want it?' " he says.
It might seem like Larsen is being a stickler, but imagine how a district might respond to someone requesting information for a group called We Love Public Education versus how it'd respond to someone from a group called Public Education Sucks. Both of these groups have equal rights to information and can request it without intimidation.
All in all, 28 of the 63 Houston-area school districts asked me what I was doing and/or who I was with.
When I walked into the Richards administration building, which also is home to an elementary school, a woman immediately asked who I was with. When I said I'd rather not say, she got the principal, who asked me the same question. As I sat in an adjacent room writing out the request, I could hear the principal on the phone with the superintendent: "He won't say what it's for. I think he's probably doing a study or something, but it's all public information." (The info was provided the next day.)