Williamson County School officials responded recently to comments made by a school board representative, as well as a parent, in reference to the school district’s timeframe for retrieving public records.
“We have received some media inquiries about the statements made by Williamson County residents and [school board member Susan] Curlee at [the recent] open records public hearing in Nashville,” said county spokesman Carol Birdsong in a statement to the media.
Curlee claimed that WCS did not respond to her request for certain records in a timely manner, according to a YouTube video of the recent Tennessee Office of Open Records Counsel public hearing in Nashville regarding newly proposed legislation that would require citizens and media outlets to pay to view public records. Curlee is opposed to the proposed legislation.
“Last September, I submitted my first ever open records request,” Curlee said. “I had no idea what would follow, but I can tell you it’s not only the cost and the fees that are hurdles to transparency. What transpired afterwards was not only a long delay, I was placed in positions, which were somewhat intimidating and were asked to drop my request multiple times.
Birdsong disagreed with Curlee’s claims.
“Mrs. Curlee’s email records request was handled in a timely fashion,” Birdsong said in a media statement.
“Because Mrs. Curlee was a board member, additional research regarding the federal law that governs confidentiality of student records was required. The Tennessee Office of Open Records Counsel was consulted along with the Family Policy Compliance Office, (FPCO), with the Federal Department of Education. This caused some additional delay, but her request was otherwise handled in a timely fashion. (Also, no) WCS employee attempted to intimidate Mrs. Curlee.”
Curlee said the number of records that was initiated from her request was “artificially inflated and pushed out into the media in such a way that I truly believe that it was done to marginalize my character, and to make it sound as if my request was unreasonable. I saw this happen time and again with others who also made records requests. Interestingly though, those with particular political affiliations and leanings didn’t have the same pushback.”
Again, Birdsong denied Curlee’s claims.
“Mrs. Curlee’s statement that the number of records responsive to her request was inflated is wrong. No attempt to defame her character was made by any employee, as she suggested. All records requestors have been treated appropriately and in accordance with the law. WCS has never used the Open Records Act or issues of transparency for political purposes. The district has and will continue to follow the law. “
Curlee said the records are paid for by the taxpayers and “intimidation...should not happen. If they want to provide a second set of eyes for checks and balances, if there is nothing to hide, why hide it?” She added that technology allows for the release of those records in a “cost-effective fashion where those records can be provided timely. It’s time we became more transparent and not less. Although I was told there was nothing to hide in those records, when people are telling you to drop it, that there’s nothing to hide, usually that means they’re hiding something. What was found was turned over to the Tennessee Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance…and they have since found a group to be a political action committee.”
Curlee refers to the parent group Williamson Strong, which she filed a 100 page complaint against Dec. 9 with the state bureau for acting as an unregistered political action committee (PAC) based on the group’s actions during the 2014 school board elections. The state Registry of Election Finance voted to issue two civil penalties to the parent group in May with separate fines in the amount of $2,500 each after reviewing the documents Curlee obtained from her opens records request to the district.
The penalties were issued for failure to register as a political action committee (PAC) and failure to file campaign disclosures with the Williamson County Election Commission. Williamson Strong has since appealed the Registry's decision, which will be heard by an administrative law judge and has also filed a complaint in federal court against the Registry. Since the case was appealed, the Registry board has postponed hearing similar cases until a decision is made by the administrative law judge.
Parent claims trouble with gathering information
Franklin resident Julie West also spoke to the group hosting the open records meeting in Nashville last week.
“Before we can determine whether something is abusive, you need to look at what’s been discovered,” West said. “One of things we’ve discovered in my records request, which pertained to my family was that SBView, a monitoring program that allowed a third party to monitor email correspondence without the sender or receiver being aware. The emails were captured and sent to ‘friendly’ political organizations, ‘friendly’ media outlets and used to attack and smear citizens and elected officials that they did not agree with.”
Birdsong replied that “SBView was not a program, and it did not monitor emails as Mrs. West suggested. SBView was an email account created many years ago to capture Board communications for convenience of review by the media.”
West said she only made two requests. One to the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO), which was filled quickly and resulted in about $3 in fees. She said her request to the school system has not yet been filled in “its entirety and some of the documents have mysteriously disappeared.
She said the number of requests released to the media was over inflated because her last name is “West” and the address of the school system is on West Main and anything with the word “West” in it was flagged.
Birdsong continued by saying that “(West’s) records request included 14 total search terms with only five of those related to family members. The additional search terms generated a large volume of responsive records. As an example, (Williamson Herald Managing Editor) ‘Kerri Bartlett’ was a search term Mrs. West requested. It returned 100,001 hits. Former school nursing supervisor ‘Jill Casada’ was a search term Mrs. West requested. It returned 74,977 hits. ‘FOX News’ was a search term Mrs. West requested. It returned 36,175 hits. Again, the additional search terms returned a minimum of 250,000 responsive records not related to her family.
“In order to fulfill Mrs. West’s records request and comply with FERPA, 20 U.S.C. § 1232g, temporary workers were hired by the district for several weeks. Schools cannot simply provide thousands of documents without ensuring those documents do not include personally identifiable information of other parents’ children.”
West said documents about her own family were “redacted in their entirety and that I was not permitted to see them.” She said after many complaints she was eventually able to see requests sent to the school by one of her children who had been “attacked” in the past, why the school system wouldn’t protect him.”
She also added that her Twitter account was monitored by WCS, something Birdsong said was not true.
West also alleged that the school system refused to let the WCSO handle abuse issues, which allegedly happened within the schools.
“They said they would prefer to handle the issue internally as a (human resources) issue, rather than criminally,” West said. “This even included instances of likely sexual abuse in the school system.”
“Mrs. West’s allegations that child safety or abuse issues were handled inappropriately are absolutely false, inaccurate and unfounded,” Birdsong said.
The meeting addressed newly proposed open records legislation that would require media outlets and citizens to pay a fee to government entities for open records requests.
Meetings took place took recently place in Knoxville, Jackson and on Capitol Hill in Nashville to gather input from the public on whether citizens should have to pay state and local governments for inspecting public records.
The open records state law gives currently reporters and the general public access to records that are not classified or sealed by the law.
According to a press release from Open Records Counsel representative Ann Butterworth, the hearings are limited to the following questions:
1.Should the TPRA (Tennessee Public Records Act) permit record custodians to charge for inspection of public records?
2. If charges for inspection are permitted, should charges for inspection be governed in a manner similar to charges for duplication (Schedule of Reasonable Charges)? If not, why not?
3. If charges for inspection are permitted, should any public records such as meeting minutes, agendas, and audit reports be exempted from inspection charges? Why?
4. If charges for inspection are permitted, should the factors listed in Tenn. Code Ann. Section 8-4-604 related to charges for copies be considered for inspection? If not, why not?
5. What amendments or changes should be made to the current Schedule for Reasonable Charges related to duplication of records? Why?
The input will be compiled and released at a later date by the Tennessee Office of Open Records Council.