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Serious or silly, records requests cost money
Just like any other public entity, the records of the Mercer Island School District are to be open to the public. Information about individual students and other personal data is protected, but the expenditures and dealings of the district, including the communications and deliberations of the school board, are subject to state public disclosure laws.
These laws, defined within the Washington State Public Records Act RCW 42.56, support and enforce the public’s right to be informed about what their government is doing.
For the first nine months of 2013, the Mercer Island School District received just 24 public records requests, including one from the Mercer Island Reporter. Yet, these requests resulted in 7,900 pages or documents that were reviewed and processed (reviewed for exempt information that may infringe on a student or individual’s privacy) and transmitted for a cost of $25,000. Of that amount, attorney fees for document review cost $15,551 and staff time was charged at $9,213.
While the amount may not seem extreme for many public agencies, for the Mercer Island School District, it meant more manpower was needed.
“While the public has the right to access public information, the sheer volume and impact of providing access to public records in the last year has required the district to hire additional staff,” said Dr. Gary Plano, Superintendent of Mercer Island School District.
Randy Bolerjack was hired as the new communication coordinator for the School District earlier this year. A large part of his role is to facilitate the district’s compliance with records requests.
Bolerjack works part time.
“Part of my role is to fulfill public records requests, including communicating with the requestors, coordinating the district staff necessary to gather the documents, working with our attorneys to redact legally protected information, scheduling the review of those documents and keeping a record of the documents the district has provided,” Bolerjack explained.
Top requestors included Robin and Nicholas Wilt and a former Mercer Island High School student, Dylan Ma.
Ma filed seven records requests with the School District. Ma, a junior, filed his requests under a set of pseudonyms that included the name Robert T. Brown, Reimund Erhard and Eric Morrison.
One person made two requests. The remaining nine requestors, including the Mercer Island Reporter, made one each. Two of the requests, including that of the Reporter, inquired as the to amount and nature of recent public records requests.
The requests included the following:
• All communication between the Mercer Island School District Board of Directors and the Superintendent for December 2012 and January 2013.
• A copy of the letter Superintendent Plano sent to staff concerning his choice to continue working at the Mercer Island School District as well as any email replies to the Superintendent regarding the subject.
• All school district legal bills in anticipation of litigation from 9/1/2012 through February 27, 2013.
• All contracted use of the auditorium at Mercer Island High School for the last 15 years and, a list of all school district performances /events held at the MIHS Auditorium for the last 15 years.
• Cost of the 1:1 iPad initiative, acceptance use forms, any emails with the word ‘iPad’ in it and the original proposal to purchase iPads.