Wednesday, October 11, 2006

School district targeted in records request

Move could cost taxpayers approximately $70,000

Express Staff Writer

The Blaine County School District is one of more than 2,000 school districts and local governments under scrutiny by a private property rights group. The group is concerned the entities used their e-mail systems to write politically charged messages that "mention or pertain" to two high-profile statewide ballot initiatives.

The district received a three-page record request in September demanding that it provide electronic information—"e-mails or all records electronically sent"—from the last two years. The district believes the request will cost it more than $69,000 to provide the requested information.

The district received the three-page request Sept. 28 from Laird Maxwell, treasurer of This House is My Home, a Boise-based group that is sponsoring Proposition 2, a private property rights initiative. The request demands the district furnish all records that were electronically sent that mention or pertain to Proposition 1. Proposition 1 proposes to increase school funding statewide through a sales tax.

"We have submitted information requests to determine the extent in which government resources are being misused for election purposes," Maxwell said.

Maxwell gave no reason as to why the Blaine County School District had been targeted, except to say it was part of a large effort to gather information. Nor could he say exactly how many other Idaho school districts were targeted. He said the organization's Wisconsin-based auditor is responsible for requesting the records.

"They are concerned about the improper use of e-mail systems to further political agendas," said Jerry Hutchins, Blaine County School District director of technology.

As the district's technology expert, Hutchins was assigned to estimate the cost of furnishing the records.

"It would take one person a year to find the information they were looking for," Hutchins said.

The district responded to Maxwell's request with an expense estimate for associated costs, which include costs of photocopying documents and labor rates for retrieving digitized information. An additional full-time employee would be hired to do the work.

Maxwell's request demands that the district waive associated fees.

"So far they have the Idaho record (for how much money it would cost to produce the requested documents). It's a bogus number designed to keep their records closed and to thwart open government," he said.

Maxwell cited a new law that he says requires government entities, if asked, to provide electronic records.

Specifically, Hutchins said it would take a tremendous amount of time to extract the e-mails sent and received from all district employees and officials. The lack of the request's specificity, he said, would make the work difficult, as would the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal law that protects the privacy of student education records.

"That level of cost is not something we could easily waive," Hutchins said. "If they want us to do it, we will do it, but we can't afford to devote the amount of time they are asking for free."

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