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

As founder and executive director of the Parent Leadership Union of Texas, Lester Houston has made plenty of public information requests over the years. His is an organization devoted to increasing parental involvement in education, and that's a goal he thinks is best achieved by keeping parents informed.

"Most school districts don't make it easy for you," he says. "Typically what they'll do is they'll attach a pretty significant bill onto your request, to try to discourage you."

The public information act doesn't require agencies to generate new documents. They only have to provide copies of documents that already exist. A district doesn't have to give you the shoe size of every math teacher, since it likely doesn't keep records of employee foot length. But what it does have to do is make a concerted effort to figure out whether the info is available.

The 63 school districts I visited went about fulfilling the request in different ways. Some offered up hundred of pages of copies, while others went beyond what's required and typed out the results on one page, keeping the overall copy cost down. (They can charge ten cents per page plus $15 per hour of labor.)

Sweeny handed over what looks like every single electrical bill from the last two years and charged $33.60; Fort Bend buried me in spreadsheets to the tune of $24.30. This was within their rights. But most districts figured out the gist of the request and summarized the info, often at no charge.

Only eight districts -- Alvin, Brazos, Conroe, Hempstead, Hitchcock, New Caney, Splendora and Spring -- charged for labor. Hempstead topped the list at $21.

Chris Cottrell, co-founder of the Katy Citizen Watchdogs, another education advocacy group, doesn't think people should have to pay for public info. "The taxpayer's already paid for the copy machine and all the supplies, and we're paying for the salaries of the people to provide us this information," he says. "They've got time to help." The Hosses

At least 18 districts had a copy of the public information act on display inside the main administration building. Cy-Fair definitely gets the prize for presentation: Not only are the words "public information" on the outside of the strip mall the administration calls home, but a framed copy of the act rests on a big easel by the entrance. (The receptionist said she often has people wandering in off the street, asking for directions and other random info.)

Though not required, having the act on display lets the public know a district values transparency. But nothing beats good ol' human interaction, and it was in this respect that three districts really shined.

The folks at Dickinson and Texas City were politely professional, never asking why the information was being requested and providing at least part of it the same day. Kudos to Tammy Dowdy and Melissa Tortorici, respectively.

I walked into La Porte on a Friday and was told I'd come on a bad day; spring break was the following week. Weary from the road, I figured I'd encountered yet another procrastinator. But as communications director Beth Rickert continued, "We're supposed to get this to you as fast as we can, but we might have some trouble today," I realized I'd found a star.

She told me to take off my pack and have a seat. She then proceeded to dig up the salary and background information and even found one year's worth of electrical payments. When told she'd been very helpful, she replied with three words: "That's our job." The Regulators

You might be wondering about the glass, the paper and the oregano. Well, superintendent salaries in the Houston area range from $70K to $278K. (Click here for a detailed list.) Electricity payments are up -- way up. (One fellow at Hardin jokingly suggested the district start serving fried foods again, so they could use the grease for biodiesel.) And every district that responded said it does background checks.

But not every district knew how to handle an information request. "A lot of it has to do with ignorance of the law and the need for more public awareness and training," says Tom Kelley, spokesman for Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, whose office is in charge of enforcing compliance with the public information act.

Kelley points to a law that went into effect this January, requiring all public officials to take a training course on how to handle information requests. And even though there are no explicit penalties when someone doesn't bother, Kelley says officials who don't take the training won't have much to stand on in any future disputes with the AG.

"It really is almost a no-brainer," he says. "If you're a public official, you need to know this law."

And knowledge is a good thing, or at least that's what they taught us in school.

The Ins and Outs of Information

Here's what you need to make a public information request. Now, go on. It's your right.

• You can't walk into the Quickie Mart and demand to see the beer receipts; only governmental bodies are subject to the public information act. These include school boards, the police department, city hall, the governor's office -- basically any place that receives public funds, save for the judiciary, which has its own set of rules.

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