Needling the Haystack

A 1,683-mile drive taught us that educators don't always entertain an open-door policy when it comes to public records

At Dayton, a woman in the superintendent's office went all wide-eyed when she realized she wasn't going to find out what was what.

"Do you live in Dayton?" she asked.

"No, I live in Houston."

"Well, this isn't big Houston, where you probably have people walking in the door all the time." (I eventually walked out with salary and background information.)

Other districts chimed in with "Mind if I ask what this is for?" "Are you doing a report?" and "You must be in a class or something."

Many of these violations were just the product of small-town curiosity. The real intimidation tactics came from the next group. The Brutes

Some folks really don't take kindly to strangers coming around asking questions.

Robert Dwight, superintendent of Damon, hovered, huffed and said he'd have the district's lawyer look over the request. (It was fulfilled five days later.)

At Kendleton, Superintendent Samuel Stillwell kept repeating, "I sure wish I knew who you were with." (None of the info was ever sent.)

Steven Dozier, superintendent of Hull-Daisetta, walked up and asked, "What are you doing?"

"I'm making a public information request."

"Well, who are you with?"

"I'd rather not say."

"What if I don't want to give it to you then?"

"It's the law."

"That might be the case, but we can go through a whole rigmarole or we can get this done." (He eventually gave his salary, although the rest of the info was never provided.)

At Barbers Hill, a woman told me she didn't see why she had to give the information if she didn't know what it was for. When I politely replied it's the law, she came back with a drawn-out "Welllllllll." She then had me wait 15 minutes before I could turn in the form to Cynthia Lusignolo, director of personnel. (The info was sent the next day.) The Stretchers

Before beginning the eight-county journey, I figured larger districts would do a better job complying with the law than smaller ones would. Districts such as Houston, Cypress-Fairbanks and Fort Bend serve beaucoup people and consequently have large administrative staffs to help them deal. But I soon discovered what can be called the Ten Day Paradox: The more familiar an administrator is with the public information act, the more likely he is to misinterpret the part concerning how long he can take to fulfill a request.

"The statute requires the information to be produced promptly," says freedom fighter Larsen. "And promptly means as soon as reasonably possible under the circumstances."

If you request something questionable, an agency has ten days to make an appeal to the Texas attorney general. If you request something complicated, an agency has to respond within ten days to tell you approximately how long it's going to take. But somewhere along the way, these nuances have been twisted into the catchall "We have ten days to get this to you," no matter if what you're requesting is very basic, such as, say, information about salaries.

Nineteen school districts told me they had ten business days to fulfill the request. Many of the larger districts -- including Houston, Cy-Fair, Fort Bend, Katy, Conroe, Spring Branch and Galena Park -- strung me along with this two-week promise.

At Conroe, it was someone in the legal office who told me ten days. At Houston, it was the office of open records. At Galena Park, it was human resources. At Friendswood, the receptionist said, "From the time it's processed we have ten business days to get this to you."

Many of these larger districts ended up taking less than ten days to fork over the info, but the average visitor is made to believe it's going to take a while. The Stragglers

I walked out of only four district offices -- Dayton, Hull-Daisetta, La Porte and Texas City -- with at least some of the information. Dickinson gave me a call later the same day, and Barbers Hill, East Chambers, Galena Park, Hempstead, Richards and Sheldon had the info ready the next business day.

Most of the other requests were in by the tenth day, but then there were the stragglers: It took 11 days for Fort Bend, Houston and Klein; 12 for Tarkington and Katy; 13 for Clear Creek and Deer Park; 14 for Devers; and 16 for Spring.

The third time I trekked out to Devers, I walked in right after lunch, ready to slap the request on the table. But the receptionist was an old woman with a hearing aid. No lie. I handed in the request and another woman came out, cocked her head and sassily said, "I don't have time to look up our electricity payments for the last two years." (The information was made available 14 days later.)

But Devers did a lot better than Hardin, High Island, Kendleton, Montgomery, North Forest and Royal. These six districts didn't provide squat. And Alief gave me a verbal rundown on background checks -- "We do them at the beginning of employment and periodically thereafter" -- but never provided any other info. Which was a pretty poor showing, considering it's the fifth-largest district in the Houston area. The Chargers

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