Whose records are they?

Chico school district barraged by requests for documents, faces likely lawsuit

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper with photo illustration Tina Flynn

What is the CPRA?
The California Public Records Act is the companion legislation to the Ralph M. Brown Act governing open meetings of public agencies. It stipulates that public documents belong to the people and that agencies must, when asked, provide access to them. It also sets out the terms and conditions for handling requests and identifies the categories of documents that are exempt.

As public agencies in Glenn County well know, Tim Crews is a bulldog when it comes to the California Public Records Act. The editor and publisher of the Willows-based Sacramento Valley Mirror frequently uses the act to obtain records and is more than willing to take a local agency to court if he believes it hasn’t responded legally.

Lately he’s been involved for months in a running court battle with the Glenn County Office of Education, which he has deluged with CPRA requests in an ongoing exposé of misspent funds and private use of public resources.

Now he has a new target: the Chico Unified School District.

In “a matter of days,” he said on Tuesday (May 29), he and his attorney will fill a writ of mandate seeking to compel the district to turn over documents he sought in December of 2006. Of the six specific requests he made then, the district responded positively to just one.

Among other things, Crews requested “agendas, minutes and/or resolutions pertaining to the PTSO organizations in your district….” He was told no such records existed. He asked for “[a]ll board policies and regulations pertaining to the operation and support of PTSO organizations.” They didn’t exist. He asked for Associated Student Body expenditure reports, account clerk reconciliation reports, as well as PTSO records, minutes, income, and so forth. None of the information was provided.

“Stonewalling,” Crews called it. “They’re pounding sand.”

Crews must finance the suit himself, of course, but if he prevails the district will be required to pay his attorney’s fees.

Crews isn’t the only one seeking records from the district. In fact, it’s been barraged lately by CPRA requests. “Yes, we’ve received a very large number,” confirmed Assistant Superintendent Bob Feaster. “It’s taken a tremendous amount of staff time” to process them all.

Although the district has provided many of the requested documents, a review of its responses shows it has often taken longer than the CPRA allows, failed to find records that were readily available, needlessly redacted student names from documents, and failed to produce records in a consistent manner.

To some extent the requests are the outgrowth of district Superintendent Chet Francisco’s refusal, as the CN&R reported on March 22 ("Superintendent won’t look back,” Newslines), to investigate serious allegations of harassment revealed in a March 8 CN&R cover story, “Abuse of Authority.”

That story documents how, in 2004, before Francisco took office, school district officials under the leadership of then-Superintendent Scott Brown knowingly made false career-threatening accusations in an effort to intimidate former Marsh Junior High School Principal Jeff Sloan into resigning.

Sloan was eventually demoted, his promising career shattered. His vice principal, Frank Thompson, also was demoted and is now teaching.

Brown has since retired, but other upper-echelon officials who participated in the harassment and still work at the district office have not been held accountable. In addition, several significant questions about the district’s handling of the matter have not been answered.

Stating that further investigation would be a distracting use of resources, Francisco said he wanted to “move forward, to focus on learning. … I’m not going back three years to find out who did what to whom.”

Sloan has taken it upon himself to investigate. He has used the CPRA to try to find out just who was involved in the harassment. He’s also sought to obtain numerous documents relating to the reasons given in 2004 for demoting him, in an effort to show that the district wrongly accused him and members of his staff.

“I simply have a right to defend myself and my former staff and will continue to do that until this district retracts what they knew was 100 percent false,” he said this week.

The district has responded to his CPRA requests in ways that are often baffling. For example, on March 22 Sloan requested a large number of Marsh Associated Student Body financial records dating from 2004 to the present. The district’s response—as described in an April 2 letter from its attorney, Kristin Lindgren, of the Sacramento firm Pinnell & Kingsley—was that, because ASB expenditures must be approved by a student officer and most contain a student’s name, every copy (there were 7,000 of them) would have to be redacted—that is, the student’s name manually blacked out.

Lindgren’s argument was that student names are confidential. However, student names are readily made public in a multitude of ways—on theater programs, at graduation, in sports stories, on honor roll lists. What the schools do not release, for good reason, are what the code refers to as “pupil records.”

Feaster said the difference was that, when students know they are participating in an awards program, they understand that their names will be released. When they sign a financial document in their capacity as student body officers, they have no such expectation.

Nothing in the CPRA makes such a distinction, however.

In addition, when the CN&R requested ASB documents in 2006, they came with student names still visible. When the paper made another request for ASB records on March 26 of this year, it was told pupil-identifying information would be redacted.

When Lindgren was asked, via e-mail, for a legal citation exempting such records from release, she referred the CN&R back to Feaster.

Sloan often got a standard reply to his letters: “The District is not in possession of any documents responsive to this request.” In several such cases involving certain field trips—to Marine World, for example—he contacted teachers he knew and had copies of the documents in a matter of minutes.

By the same token, a number of his requests were not acted upon in a timely manner. The CPRA requires that an agency respond to every request within 10 days. If the request is for a “voluminous” number of documents, the agency can then take another 14 days to collect them.

A number of the district’s responses to Sloan were late. On April 13, for example, Lindgren finally responded to a CPRA request made on March 23, 20 days earlier. On April 20, she responded to a request dated March 27. And, in a number of her responses, Lindgren stated that the district would not be able to provide the documents “for approximately three (3) to four (4) weeks.”

Feaster said the district has no policy for handling CPRA requests other than the act itself and the advice of its attorney.

On March 26, the CN&R requested all e-mail messages and memos between Brown and former Human Resources Director Bob Latchaw generated in April 2004. It was Latchaw who wrote a memo to Sloan accusing him of having “sexually explicit and/or obscene and vulgar pornographic photographs” on his office computer’s hard drive, even though the district’s own computer forensics expert had said the photos could not be linked to Sloan.

The district’s response? That after Brown’s departure from the district it had implemented a new e-mail server and thus “all of former Superintendent Brown’s e-mails were deleted. The e-mails are unretrievable.”

California law is inclusive when it comes to public records, and e-mails are no exception. However, when it comes to retention of records, the act for some reason refers only to cities, noting that they must keep all records for at least two years and then may destroy them only with “the approval of the legislative body [city council] and the written consent of the city attorney….”

Isela Casteñada, a San Francisco attorney who does consulting work for the California First Amendment Coalition, told the CN&R that, while the Brown Act (the state’s open-meeting law, sister to the CPRA) has no specific provision pertaining to records retention, California Government Code Section 6200 states explicitly that public officials are responsible, upon pain of imprisonment, for guarding public records and are liable if they “[d]estroy, mutilate or deface” any public document.

Feaster said that, to the best of his knowledge, the district had no policy regarding e-mails. “People delete their e-mails all the time.”

As far as Tim Crews is concerned, the district simply doesn’t understand the law. “These guys need to sit down and read the preface to the Brown Act,” he said.

He was referring to this statement: “The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. They insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”