Q&A: Request for school board emails

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From the South Bend Tribune:

Q: The Tribune requested emails between Superintendent Carol Schmidt and board President Roger Parent in the weeks prior to the board seeking to censure Vice President Bill Sniadecki.

Fifteen days later, the newspaper was told the emails were back from the attorney and would be ready soon. Ten days later, the newspaper was told the emails would be ready by the end of that week. Now the newspaper was told the corporation has finished its review of the emails and had now turned them over to Parent for review. Can you provide some insight into the area of public email disclosure?

I’ll highlight the issues that trouble me:

• What role should the parties who sent the emails have in providing them? The attorneys have more than once approved our requests for email exchanges and told us the parties would be forwarding them to us themselves. It seems better to me if an IT specialist retrieves and provides everything, rather than asking the target of the request to forward whatever they can find. It seems to ripen the information for self-editing regarding which emails are sent and possibly altering their content.

• If we make a request of the superintendent’s office, what role does Parent play? We requested the emails of the superintendent’s office; is it improper to turn them over to Parent to approve them independently? If we had requested all emails between the sheriff and a state representative, for example, the sheriff would be required to simply turn those over, not ask the state rep to review them first, right?

I’m considering whether we should file a complaint with the public access counselor.

A: I think your state representative-sheriff comparison is different. In this case, you’re talking about emails from the same public agency, so the ultimate responsibility to comply falls on the individual or group in charge. The sheriff leads his department, so he’s the logical person to respond unless he delegates the job to someone else in the department.

In this case, the superintendent is the top employee but is accountable to the school board.

Normally, one would expect the school superintendent to handle all requests for school district records, but your request is a little different because it concerns records created by one of the school board members.

I can understand where the superintendent might want to involve the board president in the decision-making process.

Yes, it increases the potential for self-editing by adding another gatekeeper, but it doesn’t change the statute’s requirements that the records be made available for inspection and copying unless the school district can give a statutory basis for denial or redaction.

I don’t think the situation calls for a PAC complaint unless it reaches a point where the delay appears to be unreasonable and an attempt to circumvent the public’s right to inspect the documents.

Contact Steve Key, HSPA executive director and general counsel, with media law questions at skey@hspa.com or (317) 624-4427.

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