The new Democratic majority on the Wake County school board may adopt a tougher line on handling public records requests.
Members of the former Republican board majority were subject to many public records requests for their personal and school district emails from their critics. Now the Democratic members are finding themselves subject to the same kinds of requests.
People who make requests now get the first 100 pages of copies free. They pay 10 centers for each additional page. But now they may also have to pay for the cost of staff time to handle the requests.
What triggered this discussion at Tuesday's school board meeting was all the email discussion between board members about a public records request made by Allison Backhouse.
Backhouse requested last month all the emails from new Democratic board members Susan Evans and Jim Martin between October and that point. She asked for the emails from their wcpss accounts and any emails from their personal accounts that went through school district email servers.
In addition to processing requests and copying the emails, staff also reads each message to redact personal information about students and school employees.
“Two years ago as someone who made a public records request to the board, I did ask for personal emails," said new Democratic board member Christine Kushner. "None were given to me so those were not complied with. And we’ve been asked for personal emails and so my expectation is that private emails are not subject to public records requests.
When I made my request, it was very specific and I did pay for the copies. I know that we can both recover for copies of public records requests from those who request them as well as for staff time so I would like for us to think through recovering the costs of these public records requests when that is appropriate and so if staff could keep that in mind and for the public to be very thoughtful about when they make public records requests as I feel I was two years ago.”
Evans said she had only asked school board attorney Ann Majestic whether she had to turn over her personal email from before she was sworn in. She said she was told no.
Majestic clarified that was the case unless the personal email went through the school system's email server.
Republican school board member Debra Goldman had pressed for it to be discussed in public because she said she was concerned about the extensive discussion taking place in email exchanges among board members, particularly from Martin.
Goldman responded to Kushner that she may not have gotten any personal emails because there were no personal emails that dealt with board business.
“I am apparently the one who aggravated all of this in the first place," Martin said. "There was a blanket request, initially for all of Mrs. Evans’ emails and later for all of my emails. Having been a public employee in North Carolina for 18 years, having worked extensively in faculty governance, when such an email came by I was a bit taken aback.
If I would ask for all emails from the Board of Governors of the University of North Carolina or all emails of a member of the board of trustees, I would have pretty good reason to believe that there would be at least some question raised so I asked for that question because it seemed quite strange that it just would be a blanket turning over of emails. Similarly, I would not find it useful to ask for all of Superintendent Tata’s emails, but based on the reading I was given back apparently anybody could do that. I don’t think that is wise practice. It’s a matter of wise or not wise practice.
When given my email account for wcpss I was told that we could not use a POP server that would download things on to my computer so I could read them wherever because of privacy issues. It struck me as strange if all these emails in fact are public record then why is there an issue of me downloading it onto Thunderbird, for example? Again an issue that did not particularly make sense.
Finally an issue that I believe is possibly my greatest concern. I have nothing to hide with anything I’ve written, I stand behind everything I’ve written. However, if a parent writes to me, or any of us, regarding an issue concerning their student and we’ve had a lot of issues with respect to student assignment. My question, which I still have not had answered, is is that information confidential information: the name of the student, the name of the parent, the email address of the parent?”
Cris Mulder, director of family and public engagement, said they redact any student information relating to health condition, IEP, discipline records and grades.
“My question though in the list that you just gave us, the issue of student assignment has not explicitly been placed on the record," Martin replied. "If a person inquires about their student assignment, is the person, the child, the parent and their email address part of the public record or not? I think that’s an important issue for our constituents to be aware of.”
Majestic replied that she thought she had made it clear to Martin in an email response that individually identifiable information on a student is protected. But she also added that information not directly bearing on a student isn't confidential. She said this means the email address for the parent is a public record.
Republican board member Deborah Prickett then brought up the email exchange that was posted on the blog between Evans and Backhouse in regard to the District 9 board advisory council. Prickett said that email from Evans' personal account may have started the requests for records.
Martin said he believed that the message from Evans came before she was sworn in. He said the new board members didn't get access to their wcpss email addresses until Dec. 7.
Backhouse said the email from Evans informing her she was being removed from the BAC came on Dec. 9, after the swearing-in ceremony, and from her non-wcpss email account.