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

I was really beginning to hate Devers.

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. The Busybodies

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.)

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

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.

• You can request only documents that already exist. No conjecture. No research. No hidden glances. Only stuff such as e-mails, memos, transcriptions, spreadsheets, digital files, video or sound recordings -- pretty much anything you can think of, so long as it's not just the product of wishful thinking.

• The request has to be in writing. You can talk all you want, but agencies aren't required to provide anything unless the request is written out. If you don't have access to a typewriter or computer, just write it out by hand. Good spelling and penmanship are optional, but at least make sure it's legible.

• It's nobody's business why you want the information. Public officials aren't allowed to ask. Whether you're a reporter or a taxpayer or a tin-foil activist, you've got the right to know what's up without being harassed.

• Don't fall for the "ten days" stall tactic. All kinds of folks will tell you they've got ten days to hand over the information. They're wrong. Requests are supposed to be fulfilled promptly.

• Any questions or problems, call the Texas attorney general's open records hot line at 877-673-6839. -- Keith Plocek

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