An investigation into whether Howard County Public School System unlawfully withheld public information is almost complete.
This past legislative session, the General Assembly passed HB 1105 directing the Office of the Public Access Ombudsman to go through all Public Information Act (PIA) requests filed July 1, 2012 through December 31, 2015, and to evaluate the school system's response. On Wednesday, the Public Access Ombudsman released her initial findings.
ABC2 was among the requestors who filed PIAs with the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS). Many of our requests came back with a cost. The ombudsman found evidence of others not being filled.
“So, when the ombudsman arrived and we turned over our records and a complete inventory of the records we have, it's very apparent that there were gaps in information from 2012 and 2013 and that we've cleaned that up and the process is much more efficient and the records are more readily available,” said Howard County Public School System spokesman John White.
White’s position helps facilitate these requests. He was only in his position for one month of the reporting period and acknowledges that poor record keeping and lack of training are behind some of the ombudsman's initial findings. He noted that many of the staff who managed the school records during the reporting period are no longer in the school system. Superintendent Renee Foose is the Custodian of Records charged with the responsibility of responding to PIA requests to HCPSS. She was in position for the entire recording period.
“Regardless of who the superintendent is, staff turnover causes gaps in the processing of the information or gaps in the understanding of how to process the information. For example, when there was no communications director there probably was a lack of institutional knowledge on how to do this,” White said.
Public Access Ombudsman Lisa Kershner reviewed 224 PIA files produced by the school system. Of those, she found only about a third of them, or 70 files, were either not in violation or she found no evidence of a dispute.
She also found others that presented issues. For instance, examples of the school system not responding to requests, or providing standard answers that a report containing the data did not exist but no explanation as to whether the data could be extracted elsewhere.
“I don't want staff to think we don't have to provide information that we have. If we have information that is readily available in a database that we can provide, we will. We do not have to provide new analysis or a new report,” White said.
Kershner also noted PIA requests for reports on special education services were not provided until the requestors filed a lawsuit. And she wasn't able to find any instance in which Howard County Public Schools granted a fee waiver request for a PIA that came with a charge.
The ombudsman stated it was unclear why fee waivers were denied for media requests and included this incidence:
“In an earlier (fiscal year 2013) case, HCPSS denied a fee waiver request by a different media requestor (and instead assessed fees of $405) without informing the requestor that all but one of the 10 years of requested data could be provided in 10 to 15 minutes, and therefore without charge, per information provided by the HCPSS IT department.”
White said if a similar request came in today for information that’s available in 10 minutes, there’d be no charge.
“I'm making sure that we do consider what's in the public's interest and what people's ability to pay is so we can cover costs but still not deny access,” said White.
He also wanted to stress that their record keeping has improved. HCPSS hired an in-house "Knowledge and Records Manager," is in the process of developing new proposed records retention schedules.
“It’s a great improvement process for us and we want to make sure that the public has trust in the school system to provide information,” said White.
Kershner is seeking corrections, comments, and criticism following the release of the preliminary report. The final report is due January 1, 2017.
The ombudsman is still collecting information and reviewing requests. If you'd like to share any input or documentation with the ombudsman you have until December 5 to do so.
For the full report, visit this link. Email your comments to HB1105Comment@oag.state.md.us. Use the subject “Re: HB 1105 Preliminary Findings”. Or mail information to Office of the Public Access Ombudsman, 200 Saint Paul Place, Baltimore, MD 21202-2021.