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Some school districts charge thousands for public records

Published: Feb. 22, 2022 at 8:35 PM CST
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - Our KCRG-TV9 i9 Investigative Team found through public records requests while some school districts made little to no money from public records requests other school districts made more than $1,000.

Under Iowa law, school districts can charge “reasonable fees” for public records. Those can include the cost of copies, staff time to gather those records, and lawyers to redact information protected or believed to be confidential. Advocates believe school districts and local governments are using those pricey legal fees to deter journalists and others from getting public information.

The Cedar Rapids Community School District charged $2,006.00 for public records in 2021, according to a report published on its’ website after our i9 Team requested information related to invoices. The report, which the school district said it will release every year, says 72% of those costs were for legal fees.

Randy Evans, who is the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, said he believes schools and government agencies have used lawyer fees to deter people from accessing public records by making them too expensive.

“The attorney time is a way to jack up the cost,” he said.

Evens said costs around $500 aren’t affordable for the average person and school districts could redact protected information, like students’ information, themselves.

Joe Holland, who has been hired as an attorney for multiple school districts across Iowa said those redactions are more complicated than it seems. He said most school districts want to, but need help, to follow Iowa’s Open Records Law and the Federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act

“Both state and federal law aren’t easy to interpret,” Holland said. “And even lawyers struggle with that.”

He said school attorneys nationally debate whether information is or isn’t protected under current laws.

Other school districts are more aggressive at attaching charges to records than other districts. The Linn-Mar Community School District charged our i9 Team about $40 for requests and those invoices during 2021.

Those records show the district charging people by the minute for staff time and information related to COVID-19 among other items. It also made more than $1,000 related to record requests, which doesn’t include how many times people were quoted for fees and then withdrew the request.

In comparison, Des Moines Public Schools never charged somebody for any of the 40 requests the district received. Phil Roeder, who is the director of communications for the school district, said it is district policy to waive three hours of time in compiling requests.

The Iowa Community School District only charged one person $25 for all of the records requests it received in 2021. The Dubuque Community School District only received $125 from an open records request. Michael Cyze, who is a spokesperson for Dubuque Community Schools, said the other 8 were free.

The Cedar Rapids Community School District said it provided 75% of its open records requests in 2021 for free. Colleen Scholer, who is a spokesperson for the district, said the district declined an interview and pointed us to its new online report.

The Linn-Mar Community School District also declined to talk on-camera about their practices for charging for public records. Shannon Bisgard, who is the district’s superintendent, said in a written statement its practice for recouping the cost of research and redaction services are in the best interest of taxpayers.

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