Based on closed-session discussions on Oct. 9 and Oct. 23, the school board rejected the agreement, which among other terms asked that the board adopt a policy requiring monthly publication on its website of all emails and communications between the superintendent, senior staff and the board, both individually and collectively. Under the agreement, the records from each previous month would be published within 30 days of the end of that month. The agreement also asked that the district provide the Weekly with all responsive documents to requests for communications from June, July and August of this year.
The Weekly also requested to be awarded $5,000 in attorney's fees and costs related to preparing the lawsuit.
Soon after the school board's rejection of the agreement, the district started releasing scores of monthly email correspondence to the Weekly. As of last Friday, eight months of emails have been released, dating back as far as August 2017. With additional staff and a new redaction software in place, Superintendent Don Austin said he anticipated completely catching up by Dec. 14.
"I can safely say we are sprinting in a way that will have us caught up very soon," he wrote in a Oct. 24 email to Weekly Publisher Bill Johnson.
The Weekly heard a similar response to a threat of legal action made to then-superintendent Max McGee in March 2016. The district quickly produced months of emails and promised future compliance. The district was caught up by August 2016 and hired a full-time legal requests specialist to handle such requests but almost immediately fell behind again.
"We were burned before by this false promise," Johnson wrote to Austin on Oct. 26. "'Trust us' is simply no longer credible, and the absence of a board commitment on the future handling of these communications neither acknowledges the long history of this problem and the district's past failure to adhere to the promises made in 2016 nor conveys a belief that it considers timely release of routine documents important.
"Like so many instances in the past, this has the makings of advice from attorneys determined to steer the board away from doing the right thing because it would establish an expectation of compliance and therefore potential liability if it didn't comply," Johnson wrote.
Austin responded that he is "confident" in the district's ability to catch up and suggested discussing "what documents you really want" to avoid "over- or under-production of documents."
Board President Ken Dauber, speaking as an individual and not for the full board, declined to comment on the Weekly's potential lawsuit but said he intends to pursue a policy to bring "visibility and regular accountability" to the district's compliance with the Public Records Act.
"It makes good sense to adopt policies and practices that state the district's intention about complying with the Public Records Act because clearly what the district has been doing to this point isn't working well," he said.
Dauber serves on the board's policy-review committee and will chair it next year. He said he plans to bring to the committee policy ideas that lay out timeframes for the district's response, categories of records that could be routinely produced and regular reporting on the volume and status of requests.
He believes the district should work with people who make "overly burdensome" requests to narrow the requests and push back if necessary when the "public interest is greatly outweighed by the cost."
The board's policy-review committee has only one meeting remaining in 2018, but he said that "the right thing to do is to take this up as soon as we can. This is a pretty high priority."
In 2012, the district agreed in response to a Public Records Act request to provide the Weekly with copies of board-cabinet communications — first once a week, then every other week and beginning in September 2013, once a month. After McGee was hired in 2014, the requests eventually lapsed to a backlog of more than a year.
In May 2016, the Weekly began submitting formal monthly written requests for these records and has continued to do so at the start of each month.
The district has yet to produce emails from the months of October 2017 and February, May, June, July, September and October of this year.
Johnson said the Weekly has not yet made a decision on whether to proceed with a lawsuit.
This story contains 787 words.
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