The Johnson County District Attorney’s office had to intervene to get the Gardner Edgerton School District to provide public information via e-mail. Before the DA’s intervention, a lawsuit was threatened and the district hired a high-dollar law firm.
Annually, the Kansas Policy Institute (KPI) requests salary and other information from school districts across the state. Annually, those districts comply with the state law under the Kansas Open Records Act.
This year, the KPI made the same request to USD 231 and Gardner-Edgerton invoked the district’s policy of providing KORA requests only by hard copy, to be picked up in person and paid for at the board office, with paper check and appropriate identification. The district claimed it does not provide information electronically, and they do not accept debit/credit cards for these transactions.
A KORA request for email involving Pam Stranthan, superintendent, and Shawn Carlisle, board president, said there were no answers to be provided.
However, both the KPI and the district attorney’s office provided documentation on the KPI’s KORA request.
The journey to view public information, of which USD 231 is custodian, began in mid-July when Beth Wasko, KPI, requested total pay for district employees. “Total pay includes all forms of compensation including but not limited to base pay, overtime, bonuses, shift differential, special duty pay, payment for unused sick days, cell phone allowance and car phone allowance,” Wasko emailed.
Deb Starling, the district’s freedom of information officer, responded with the district KORA form which needs to be printed, filled out by hand, scanned and emailed to the district. She also informed Wasko, via e mail, that the district “25 cents per page copy along with a $12 per hour fee that will be collected when you pick up this information in person at our Board of Education office,” Starling wrote.
On July 18, she wrote Wasko that part of the request would be available in paper form the following week “at a cost of $17 in advance. The district does not accept electronic payments in these amounts,” she wrote.
July 30, Dave Trabert, KPI president, wrote Starling, “Finally, the KORA law also doesn’t require that we appear in person, so, we ask that you e mail the file to Beth upon receipt of payment. We’ll put a check in the mail to your attention this week.”
Later, the same day, Curtis Tideman, partner with Lathrop and Gage LLP, responded to Trabert that he represented the GE school district. Because Starling had told Tideman that Trabert was mailing the check, “That being the case, I’ve decided to go ahead and send you a copy of the records which you will be receiving in the mail shortly.”
Tideman’s email then discusses whether an attorney general’s opinion requires data be sent in an Excel format, as opposed to a PDF or a paper copy. He ends his e mail, “Even though not technically required to accede to your demands under KORA, however, the school district is always willing to consider reasonable accommodations in the name of cooperation and transparency,” he wrote.
Aug. 21, Trabert filed a complaint with the district attorney’s office. He wrote, “On August 5, I called Deb Starling to explain that the Attorney General’s website says, ‘Computerized information can meet the definition of a public record and must be provided in the form requested if the public agency has the capability of producing it in that form.’”
Trabert said Tideman had not replied to two voicemails left for him Aug. 12 and Aug. 19.
Trabert also informed the DA that KPI was prepared to file a lawsuit against USD 231 to force them to release public information if necessary.
The district attorney’s office agreed with Trabert, and on Sept. 4 Shawn Minihan e mailed him that he had spoken with Tideman and also told him the district should release the information electronically as requested and said he had received a copy of Tideman’s e mail which included the payroll information in Excel format.
Tideman, Lathrop and Gage wrote, “Following our discussion yesterday, my client has prepared an excel spreadsheet with the same information which was previously provided to Mr. Trabert.  It is attached.  I presume this will dispose of the complaint.”
The payroll information that was subject of the KPI request is published in this issue of the newspaper and also here Compensation, including OT-2 salary