School continues to hide documents

ORIGINAL DOCUMENT REQUEST FOR WHICH WE PAID $245 IS BELOW.

Acton Forum has asked questions and requested documents from the Acton-Boxborough Regional School District (ABRSD) related to the abrupt departure of a long-time top School administrator, Liza Huber, the former Director of Pupil Services, who apparently stopped working for the School District in September, 2014. Despite her absence, she continued to be paid her full salary through the end of the school year, which cost about $100,000 in salary alone. We started asking questions when we first became aware of her departure in February, 2015, and after having almost no questions answered, we started making public document requests.

After a six-month delay, the ABRSD has finally complied with the Secretary of State’s order to release these documents and an index of any documents withheld after Acton Forum editors Allen Nitschelm and Charlie Kadlec paid an estimated fee of $245 to the School.

The $245 was not well spent. We ended up getting seven documents over nine heavily redacted pages, including none from the time of Ms. Huber’s departure from the School district. This works out to a cost of $35 per document.

Four documents look like boilerplate letters to School Committee members. One short email contained a “Notice of Retirement” and another was a note to the School’s IT coordinator, also heavily redacted. You can read the nine pages produced here: (http://actonforum.com/sites/default/files/021715docs.pdf).

Incredibly, the School argued in its cover letter that it had undercharged us for what was produced. “As a courtesy to you and without precedent, the School District is not requesting that you pay the remainder of the search and segregation costs, nor are we charging you for the copying costs associated with your request….” The School said the actual cost should have been $376. You can read their cover letter here: (http://actonforum.com/sites/default/files/082115coverletter.pdf).

While it is great that the School is not asking us to pay more, it is outrageous that requesting public emails and getting back seven, four of which are virtual duplicates, would require the payment of $245, let alone $376. That essentially makes email requests unaffordable to average citizens and thus effectively circumvents the Freedom of Information laws in regard to public requests for emails. Perhaps that is the School's intent on charging and justifying such high fees.

This is despite notices and warnings given to the public that emails sent to or from the School are public documents. Superintendent Glenn Brand has a disclaimer printed on all of his emails which says, “Please remember when writing or responding, the Massachusetts Secretary of State has determined that e-mail is a public record.” And on the School website, at the School Committee tab, the public is advised that, “Email messages sent to School Committee members become part of the public record per MGL: Chpt.66, Sec.10 Public Records Law.”

At twenty cents per page, the requested fee should have been $1.80, and if the School believed in transparency and open government, and followed the spirit of the public document law, it would have been. In fact, the state suggests that "A records custodian is encouraged, but not required, to waive fees where disclosure is in the public interest." (http://www.sec.state.ma.us/pre/prepdf/guide.pdf, page 7).

Acton Forum will appeal the redactions and the high fee to the Secretary of State’s office.

INDEX OF MORE INTEREST

The Secretary of State ordered the School to produce a list of all documents that responded to our request if they were not all being released, or if there were any redactions.

This index of documents, called the Custodial Index, is of more interest. To see the index provided by the School, click here: (http://actonforum.com/sites/default/files/021715custindex.pdf).

The index lists only two documents either to or from Liza Huber during the timeframe when she apparently separated from the School. Both are letters, dated September 5, 2014 and September 10, 2014, from the Superintendent to Huber. Both documents were withheld in their entirety, citing various exemptions to the public document law. Ms. Huber evidently sent no initial letter nor made any written response to the Superintendent's letters as the index does not list any correspondence from her during that timeframe.

On December 9, 2014, School Committee Chair K. Rychlik sent a letter to Huber, which has also been withheld for similar reasons. And the Settlement agreement, which is called a Separation Agreement and not dated in the Index, was also withheld, but this has already been appealed by Acton Forum as it was previously requested.

Interestingly, the Index then lists a Confidential Memorandum from “an Attorney” to the Superintendent regarding Huber dated 12/4/14. We will come back to this in a moment.

The rest of the Index explains the reasons why the released emails have been redacted, even though these emails were sent to School Committee members or personnel who surely know of the public nature of emails based on the various disclosures cited above. Yet still the emails are heavily redacted. Who is being protected by redacting these emails? If it is Huber, surely she knew full well that emails are public documents because it says so on the website and in emails sent by the Superintendent. So why aren’t these emails being released in their entirety, when both the sender and receiver know they are clearly public?

SCHOOL NARROWLY CONSTRUES REQUEST TO BUY MORE TIME

The School’s attempt at dragging out our request continues. In emails over the summer, the School sought to clarify our original request for documents related to Huber’s departure.

In February, after asking several questions about the issue and receiving almost no response, we asked for all emails to or from Huber, and also any other correspondence or memos about her departure. Our original request now seems somewhat ambiguous. We asked for a "copy of any correspondence to or from Ms. Liza Huber...from September 1 to the present. This would include any emails and documents related to Ms. O'Connell [sic] separation from the ABRSD."

When asked to clarify our request, and well after the fee was estimated, we said we wanted all emails or memos related to her departure, including those from administrators or School Committee members.

But the School Administration decided to interpret our request to include only emails or documents that were sent to or from Huber, and not to include any other emails or documents among or between administrators and School Committee members. Were these documents originally included in the fee estimate, but later removed to lengthen the time to respond? Based on the size of the fee and the total of seven documents produced, we think that likely.

In the "Guide to the Massachusetts Public Records Law," the Secretary of State says that, "Records custodians must use their superior knowledge to determine the precise record or records responsive to a request." (See http://www.sec.state.ma.us/pre/prepdf/guide.pdf, page 5).

And yet despite the School's position that narrowly construes our request, the School included a memo from an attorney to Superintendent Brand. Perhaps the memo was also copied to Huber? We can only speculate since the memo was also withheld.

So Acton Forum will now request all other documents and emails related to the Huber departure and brace ourselves for another fee request, undoubtedly higher than the last one. And we can expect another six-month wait and perhaps even further delay if we must appeal the size of the estimated fee.

NEXT ARTICLE: In withholding documents, is the School protecting Huber’s reputation or its own? See: http://www.actonforum.com/story/huber-oconnell-mystery

PREVIOUS ARTICLES ON THIS TOPIC

March 7, 2015: Former School Administrator continues to receive salary despite not working:
http://www.actonforum.com/story/former-school-administrator-continues-re...

March 13, 2015: School hires new law firm to avoid disclosure:
http://www.actonforum.com/story/school-hires-new-law-firm-avoid-disclosure

March 17, 2015: Law Firm gives AB School District Deep Discount:
http://www.actonforum.com/story/law-firm-gives-ab-school-district-deep-d...

May 28, 2015: Acton Forum wins round one with school district: http://www.actonforum.com/story/acton-forum-wins-round-one-school-district

June 9, 2015: School defies Supervisor of Records, refuses to produce index without $245 fee: http://www.actonforum.com/blogs/allenn/school-defies-supervisor-records-...

June 13, 2015: Open Letter to the AB Regional School Committee: http://www.actonforum.com/blogs/allenn/open-letter-ab-regional-school-co...

June 17, 2015: School has secret settlement agreement with Huber: http://www.actonforum.com/story/school-has-secret-settlement-agreement-h...

July 13, 2015: School ordered to provide Executive Session minutes to Attorney General: http://www.actonforum.com/story/school-ordered-provide-executive-session...

July 27, 2015: School releases two settlement agreements, withholds one: http://actonforum.com/story/school-releases-two-settlement-agreements-wi...

August 2, 2015: Meet Acton's highest paid employee: http://www.actonforum.com/story/meet-actons-highest-paid-employee

August 23,2015: 'Fantastic' school administrator hired by Dedham: http://www.actonforum.com/story/fantastic-school-administrator-hired-dedham

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