October 2, 2014

School board emails reveal open records discussion

Danedri Thompson
dthompson@gardnernews.com
USD 231 will no longer accept Kansas Open Records requests from individuals the district says owe money on previous requests. The district’s attorney, Joe Hatley, sent a letter to Walter Hermreck, Gardner, denying his Oct. 16 request for a form that specifies USD 231’s official enrollment numbers.
Hatley wrote that Walter must pay the district $122 for a request he made in September of 2012 before the district will supply him with other public documents. Hatley typically charges more than $250 per hour for his legal services.
“…It would make no sense that a public agency should be required to continue honoring KORA requests from someone who still owes the agency money for prior requests,” Hatley wrote in a letter to Hermreck. USD 231. “Therefore, it is my opinion that the school district may in good faith refuse to honor your KORA requests until such time as you have paid the amounts you owe.”
Without charge, the Kansas Department of Education provided Hermreck with Form SO 66.
Hermreck said he didn’t pay the school district’s $122 fee for a previous record, because the district supplied records he didn’t actually request. In an email to the district communications director, Hermreck inquired about the school district’s policies and procedures for handling activity funds. Hermreck did not use the district’s KORA request form, but in a return email, the district called his question an open records request and sought payment to supply the policy as well as other forms that Hermreck didn’t request.
Hermreck’s recent request for Form SO 66 sparked heated email discussion between board members.
Rob Shippy, board member, sent an email to Superintendent Bill Gilhaus asking that Hermreck’s request be fulfilled.
Gilhaus responded to Shippy’s request saying the district was spending too much time responding to requests from The Gardner News and Hermreck. Gilhaus carbon-copied all members of the school board, in many cases, not using their published district email account addresses.
“After discussion with the board of education, it was determined we would always attempt to meet any reasonable requests for information in a timely manner; however, not at the expense of losing focus of our student learning,” Gilhaus wrote to Shippy. The superintendent carbon-copied all school board members.
“I understand that you believe the information may not be used in a positive light for the school district, but it does not relieve the school district of the obligation to provide the public with documents that are of public record,” Shippy wrote in a response to Gilhaus.
Form SO 66 shows that the district has 80 more students this school year than last, an increase of 1.5 percent rather than the 3 to 6 percent increase anticipated during the bond issue campaign for new school buildings.
“If your intention was not to fulfill the request a simple email to him on how to obtain the document should have been provided at the very least,” Shippy wrote.
Shippy’s email also suggested that the board, at a future meeting, should discuss how open records requests are handled in the future.
Board member James Repshire responded to Shippy, saying the email made him angry.
Repshire wrote that Shippy does not have the authority to direct the superintendent to take action.
“Furthermore, from the perspective of a fourteen-year board member, I can tell you that if someone were to suggest that your antics are a form of ‘grandstanding,’ it would be difficult for me to defend you against such a suggestion,” Repshire wrote offering to meet with Shippy at a Baldwin City restaurant to discuss the topic personally.
Board member Tresa Boden wrote that she didn’t think Shippy’s email asking that the district give Hermreck the form was a “demand.”
“I did not read it that way initially, and I don’t read it that way right now,” Boden wrote to Repshire, copying other members of the board. “It was a polite request which Dr. Gilhaus has no obligation to fulfill… I do feel (Shippy’s) request would have been better stated as a question as to why the demand by Mr. Hermreck wasn’t being fulfilled, but I don’t feel what was typed deserved the tone of your email.”
Board president Mark Grannell wrapped up the thread of emails by suggesting that the board meet in executive session to discuss what information the district is obligated to provide to patrons, a history of issues the board has faced in the past and a discussion of how the board would like to proceed in the future.
The email string in its entirety, including Hermreck’s initial requests for board policies on activity funds and responses is HERE.

Comments

  1. Jerry L Kellogg Sr says:

    Sadly, this reminds me of another “policy” decision announced 14 months ago our school district.

    http://gardnernews.com/usd-231-may-not-respond-to-future-inquiries/

    Over the years, I can recall being charged a fee only once to fulfill my request for a public document — 25-cents each for two photocopies from the U.S. Postal Service, which understandably does not transact business via e-mail. Otherwise, and maybe I’ve just been lucky or fortunate to contact the right person on one of their good days, I have never been asked to pay for a public document from any state, county or city agency or board.

    It is unfortunate that, despite the advanced technology systems put in place in recent years at USD 231, district administration continues to struggle with providing requests for open public records.

    However, within the last week or two, USD 231 has rolled out a newly redesigned platform for its website. Hopefully, with the increasingly proacative posting of information and public documents sought after by concerned parents and patrons, the district will see a reduction in what Superintendent Dr. Bill Gilhaus has termed burdensome, costly and distracting efforts to comply with the spirit of the Kansas Open Records Act (KORA). The district has an obligation to patrons and taxpayers, as well as parents and students, to be not only ethical but as efficient as possible.

    What all public servants need to realize is that transparency helps build trust in government, thereby helping these officials themselves. Open government is essential to a democracy. It’s the only way citizens know what’s going on. KORA is clear: Public records are to be made public, and that law is to be construed liberally, not by some facile legal arguments that attempt to keep these records secret or difficult to access.

    I am optimistic that USD 231 will continue to seek a responsible and appropriate resolution to this issue.

  2. In my opinion this email chain may be a violation of the Kansas Open Meetings Act. A “meeting” as defined by KOMA has to meet 3 conditions.

    1 Interactive communication in person or by telephone or any other medium.

    2 A gathering of or by a majority of the members of the agency or body.

    3 Discussion of the business or affairs of that body or agency.

    Interactive communication means that the communication was two-way, which is obviously was in these emails.

    When Dr. Gilhaus sent his initial email to all of the board members it created a one way conversation. Once there were responses back and forth does it become a meeting?

    Another issue is that when Dr. Gilhaus emails the BOE members he uses personal email addresses for both of them. Why would he do this when they are all issued a USD 231.com email address for business? When they use their personal email addresses it makes the email harder to access via KORA. Most other school districts frown upon this is obviously business as usual at USD 231. Why do we accept this?

    These people are in charge of $100 million dollars of tax payer money and we have virtually ZERO accountability. Why is this allowed to happen? Is this good government? Is this behavior ethical?

  3. Judith Rogers says:

    City of Gardner has been pulling this BS for years plus violating the Open Meetings Act and yet you never hear the CFG people complaining about that………….good ole rotten politics run our government entities and the same ole cronies pick and choose what and who they want to chase. Many citizens are as bad as their rotten politicians and bureaucrats – pick your poison and the kool-aid that you will drink.

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