SAN DIEGO — 130,000 children attend classes in the San Diego Unified School District. Their parents need to be in the loop about how the district handles safety issues and how it spends taxpayer dollars, but the district isn't in a big hurry to share some information.
Withholding information appears to be in violation of California's Public Records Act, which is supposed to make it easy for journalists and members of the public to inspect public documents in a timely fashion.
In preparation for" Back to School Week" last summer, Team 10 filed public records requests with several school districts, asking for information regarding student safety and missing school inventory items, like ipads and projectors that are paid for with tax dollars.
Five other school districts in San Diego County responded to our requests in a matter of weeks. 7 months later, San Diego Unified is still withholding those documents.
The requests were filed with the district in July. Within the 10 day period prescribed by law, the district sent letters out, claiming the estimated time when we would get the documents would be 12 weeks. After more than 24 weeks. we still haven't seen the requested documents, which can help parents keep informed about their children's education and safety.
One of the public records requests was identical to one made by Team 10 right before the 2014-2015 school year. We asked for inventory lists and property loss reports, including the dollar values of all missing items over the past 5 years. When that request was made in the summer of 2015, the district provided the information within a month.
We asked for the same information for the 2015-2016 school year last July. Although this time we only asked for one year's worth of missing items, the district still has not made the requested information available.
Two days before Team 10 published this story, we were notified there were "no responsive documents" to one of our requests regarding school safety. That request was also made more than 6 months ago.
Citizen groups are also frustrated by the school district's apparent lack of transparency.
"They do not appear to be transparent at all," said Tom Meissner, a board member for the Scripps Ranch Civic Association. The association is one of several citizen groups that was trying to block San Diego Unified from closing down the Innovations Academy Charter School to lease the property to a developer who will turn it into a 300,000 square foot apartment complex.
Community members felt they were cut out of discussions regarding the project, so they used California's Public Records Act, hoping it would give them some insight into the decision-making process.
"It's taken over a year to get a response to the initial records request," said Meissner. "The records request was clear... looking for all emails and attachments of a particular person who was involved in this process, relevant to this project. The response was a PDF file that contains emails and it references numerous times in there that those emails have attachments."
Meissner said no attachments were sent, but there was one e-mail that got the group's attention. It was from a member of the district's financial staff with the subject line reading: Innovations Academy Tower at Scripps Ranch. The email showed a picture of San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and a massive 163-story apartment tower. It read: "Dear Scripps Ranch Resident, Monarch Development Corp. and the City of San Diego are proud to announce the completion of the Innovations Academy Apartment Tower at Scripps Ranch. The 163 story apartment tower (see photo below) is located at the corner pf Scripps Poway Parkway and Spring Canyon Road. We did have to relocate the Farmer's Market to the McDonald's parking lot but I'm sure you won't mind. Your friend Kevin."
Meissner said the date on that e-mail was one day after a meeting where community members had voiced concerns about the project. "It’s clearly a culture that they don't appreciate the community input, they don't think that its valid. They are disrespectful of us and the process and the objections that we're raising about the project."
Team 10 contacted Mayor Faulconer's office regarding the e-mail. A member of his communications staff sent an email response that read "We will decline to comment."
The San Diego Unified School Board approved the lease of the Innovations Academy land late last month. The 66-year lease will allow Monarch Development Group to build 264 apartments as well as retail space. The district claims it will bring in $37-million dollars of long-term, guaranteed revenue.
Team 10 contacted David Loy, Legal Director for the San Diego and Imperial County Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Loy, who is an expert in open records law, said San Diego Unified isn't following the letter, nor the spirit of California's Public Records Act.
"I think what the district is doing, intentionally or not, is subverting the entire purpose of the California Public Records Act, which is to ensure prompt disclosure of documents so that the people and the public can hold the government accountable to ensure the government is transparent and accountable to the people."
"Documents delayed are documents denied," said Loy who explained the public records act gives government entities 10 days to respond, and allows an extension of up to 14 more days. The law states that in "unusual circumstances" the time limit can be extended.
San Diego Unified's Legal Specialist, Jeffrey Day, disagreed. In a letter he wrote in response to our complaint about public records requests dragging on for months and months, Day wrote. "The requirement to produce records promptly is tempered by reasonableness. Currently, the District is responding to dozens of requests and has a finite number of staff members to gather, review and redact (when necessary) documents responsive to those requested. The District's current estimated response times are based upon the volume of requests to the District and our practice that we respond to requests in the order that they are received."
Loy begged to differ. Prompt is not 6 weeks, 6 months or 12 months, except in the most extreme and unusual circumstances," he said.
"This kind of routine, prolonged disclosure is, I think, a clear violation of the public records act," Loy added
"The first duty of democratic government is being transparent to the people. If they don't have sufficient resources then they need to look at their document management control. They need to find ways to be more efficient, they may need more resources, and they need to go to the taxpayers and explain, if you want us to comply then we need the resources."
Team 10 confirmed San Diego Unified's Legal staff is comprised of 11 people. According to Transparent California, which tracks salaries for all government workers, those workers make anywhere from $58,000 per year in pay and benefits to $276,790.
The district did not respond to our request for the names, salaries and operating costs of the Legal Department. We also requested information, which should be public, about the number of employees in the district's Communications Department, which is supposed to facilitate all media requests. So far, they have declined to give us that information.
Team 10 emailed every single school board member to address this issue. Not a single one responded.