Can You Spare $91,440?

Make that $111,039.50…

Update: Since I posted this story, a new study has officially confirmed what was already evident. Massachusetts has among the worst public records access in the country, earning an F from the Center for Public Integrity. That *F* by the way, stands for *fees,* as in the big fat kind. In fact, since our research group submitted our original public records request, several of the charter schools have increased their fees even higher. Boston Collegiate Charter now wants $9,330 for the information we requested. Excel Academy now wants $16,972.50. Match is up to $37,532. And Neighborhood House is up to $17,645. Which brings today’s big fat tally to $111,039.50—and rising. 

Here’s a math question for you, reader. Say one wanted to submit a public records request to a handful of charter schools, inquiring about their recent lobbying activities. How much do you suppose such a request might set one back? If you answered $91,440, you would be on the money.

FOIABut what kind of information could possibly merit fees of that kind? Refresh your beverage, reader, for ours is a long and twisted, not to mention outrageously expensive tale… 

A little backstory
money-to-kidsHave you noticed lately that charter schools in Massachusetts are increasingly functioning as a political lobbying force? I certainly have. Which is why this summer, a group of researchers of which I’m part, and which includes university professors, graduate students, union researchers, and interns, submitted public records requests to ten Boston charters, using the service Muckrock. (Full disclosure: the research group was started by Jobs with Justice, a nonprofit headed by the gentleman to whom I’m *technically* married.) We wanted to know just how *highly aligned* these charter schools are with lobby groups, like the increasingly controversial Families for Excellent Schools. We also wanted to know how common the practice of automatically sharing parent and student information with lobby groups has become. And so we asked. 

That will be $36,015 please
The lawyers of Krokidas & Bluestein (*’Doing good’ should be part of a law firm’s core business, not just an add on*), were happy to help, explaining that, well, here, you can see for yourself:
Public_Records_Request_Response_-_Match_ exerptAnd it wasn’t just the Doing Good-ers at Krokidas & Bluestein who wanted big bucks to fulfill a standard public records request. Even Roxbury Prep, which responded without a lawyer, wanted $12,500 to provide the documents we asked for. (Note: if you are drinking along at home, Roxbury Prep is the charter school founded by John King, who is replacing Arne Duncan.)

But isn’t that an outrageous amount of money?
In a word, yes. Even in a state with notoriously weak public records laws, and where tax-payer funded entities routinely demand high fees in an effort to money clipscare off the curious, these are eye-popping numbers. In fact, just last spring, the MBTA outraged Fox News and the entire Massachusetts media establishment when officials wanted $15,000 for a public records request. Which by my math, is less than half of the highest-performing charge that we got. In fact, in fact, in a political season filled with ironies (like the fact that state education secretary and former Families for Excellent Schools national board member Jim Peyser is the *defendant* in a *civil rights* suit vs. the charter cap!), add to the list one more. In 2016, Massachusetts voters will be asked to weigh in on lifting the state charter cap, AND on strengthening the public records law that currently allows charter advocates to keep a cap on information regarding their frenetic lobbying activities.

Time now for a word from our sponsor
great schoolsThis portion of the post is brought to you by Great Schools Massachusetts. Tell Massachusetts legislators to lift the cap now on public charter schools! Did I mention that charter schools are public schools? That is unless public citizens use the state’s public records laws to request what should be public information. Then these schools suddenly don’t seem so public at all.

In the meantime, should you want to donate to my campaign to raise $91,440, you know what to do.

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11 Comments

  1. Did you ask for a tons and tons of documents? If you asked for only a few, then the fees are high. But, if you asked for tons of documents — which need to be retrieved, redacted, copied and sent — then the fees might not be outlandish. Hard to know.

  2. Holy cow, Michelle! Put that rock back in place! Too many crawly things underneath. Anyway, their lawyers need to bill north of three hundred bucks an hour just to swat down these pesky info requests. Great article.

  3. Jennifer,

    Out here in Los Angeles, the ICEF charter chain tried the same thing with parent activist Adam Benitez—who runs a blog — “ADVENTURES IN CHARTER CO-LOCATION”, chronicling the parents and community members resisting the ICEF co-location at their schools (and who had successfully kicked out Citizens of the World charter in June 2014)

    I’m going to link, then cut-‘n-paste three articles in chronological order where Adam resisted the demands for money to accompany
    Adam’s Freedom of Information requests… (spoiler… the third post has a happy ending:

    Here’s the first:

    http://cwcmarvista-co-location-stoner-lausd.blogspot.com/2015/08/icef-amateur-hour-continuesicef-tries.html

    ———-
    PART I –

    ADAM BENITEZ:

    Saturday, August 29, 2015

    ICEF Amateur Hour continues…ICEF tries to charge $800 to view public records

    Honestly, I didn’t think we’d have another ICEF Amateur Hour episode so soon, but here we are again.

    Here’s ICEF Charter School’s bogus invoice to view public records:

    http://cwcmarvista-co-location-stoner-lausd.blogspot.com/2015/08/icef-amateur-hour-continuesicef-tries.html

    ICEF continues to play dumb about their responsibility under the California Public Records Act (PRA). On Thursday, ICEF responded to a PRA request with a invoice of $867.87 to just view these records. The fees included copying, redacting, reviewing the redactions, and even lunch breaks. ICEF’s lawyer was cc’d on the invoice.

    I had a great belly laugh when I saw the email. What fresh BS is this?

    Per the PRA, public records can be viewed upon request on location at no cost to the requester. Any work required to make these documents available must be taken on by the keeper of the records. This “invoice” is just another lame attempting to not comply with the law.

    After complaining about the legality of the invoice to ICEF CCO/CFO Greg Brendel , I was directed to speak with ICEF’s legal counsel. I connected with the lawyer on Friday afternoon and we spoke for 23 minutes. It was exhilarating!

    ICEF’s counsel offered to reduce the cost of access to the documents to $250.

    Absolutely not, I told him, I would not pay anything to see public records.

    This invoice was bogus and was even attempting to double charge for copying of records for redaction for public viewing.

    I have made many public records request since I started this blog, (the most notable and troublesome request involved getting copies of documents related to the CWC stripping and hosing a student on campus) and this was the first time anyone tried to charge. The lawyer said he would get back to me next week.

    So, fellow Adventurers, tune in next week for the next episode where more amateur antics are sure to ensue.

    PART’s II and III coming up

  4. PART II –
    —————-
    http://cwcmarvista-co-location-stoner-lausd.blogspot.com/2015/09/icef-agrees-to-release-records.html

    ADAM BENITEZ:

    Thursday, September 17, 2015
    ICEF agrees to release records

    – – – – – – – –

    It looks like ICEF has relented on their invoice of $860 to view public records.

    I received a notice from ICEF’s counsel that they will be releasing the records for public viewing and will be doing so at no cost. They should be available next week. But there might be a problem with what ICEF wants to redact….
    ———————————-
    ———————————-
    … and finally…
    —–
    PART III –
    (actually, it’s not the happy ending promised… read on… the “happy” part is that it didn’t cost Adam a penny… however, the info was… oh, well… read on)
    ——————————
    http://cwcmarvista-co-location-stoner-lausd.blogspot.com/2015/09/icef-amateur-hour-poor-record-keeping.html

    ADAM BENITEZ:

    – – – – – – – –

    Sunday, September 27, 2015

    ICEF Amateur Hour – poor record keeping

    Back in August, I made a public records request for the email addresses of the ICEF Board of Directors so that I could email these un-elected, appointed directors to complain about the conditions on the Stoner Avenue Elementary School campus caused by the co-location of ICEF Vista and ask them to not return next year.

    FUNNY CARTOON showing how ICEF provides incorrect information in response to public records request:

    http://cwcmarvista-co-location-stoner-lausd.blogspot.com/2015/09/icef-amateur-hour-poor-record-keeping.html

    Greg Brendel, ICEF CFO/COO and ICEF Keeper of Records, responded to my request and provided me with 6 email addresses.

    However, when I tried to email the board, all six emails bounced back returning a message that the email address did not exist.

    It’s very odd that the ICEF keeper of records would not have the correct email information for board members, especially since he runs the board meetings.

    This isn’t even the first time this year that Brendel has given me incorrect email address information for board members. In February of this year, I had asked for the email addresses of the ICEF board at the time. There were errors with the information he released then too.

    What’s the deal? Can’t ICEF provide true and correct information, or is it purposely providing incorrect contact information for its board?

    After pointing out the error (and complaining to the LAUSD Charter School Division), ICEF responded with the correct email addresses.

    It’s very interesting that since last school year, the entire ICEF Board of Directors has changed. Is it normal for an entire school’s boards to change in a one year? I guess we will learn more as ICEF releases more information in response to public records requests.

  5. I feel your pain. When I requested the information necessary to figure out AIR’s VAM formula, Albany informed me that a FOIL request would cost $31,475.

  6. One of our organizers tried to get allegedly public information from Chicago International Chicago School, but they wouldn’t give it to him without seeing his ID. What’s so hard to understand about this?

  7. If UP Academy can comply with your request, why can’t the others? What did they send you? Was it billions of sheets of paper? Was the information valuable? Interesting? Is it possible they are a good guy charter? Oh and no surprise that the good old Boston Renaissance Public Charter has not responded at all. There are big secrets behind those doors!

  8. I agree with the first post and must ask: How targeted was your request? If you asked for all of their records for say the past 10 years, then I think your request is unreasonable. If anyone has tried to refinance a house, you know how much time and energy can go into locating doculments, scanning or copying them and sending them
    These people are trying t run schools.
    Why not ask to go visit the schools amd ask specifically for the materials you want, copy them youself and go on your way?

    While lawyers fees have always puzzled me, are you saying that there should be no accountability for people’s time?

    1. The measure that will be on the ballot in 2016 caps the amount per page, which, along with lack of recourse for FOIA filers, is the biggest problem in Massachusetts. I’m less worried about a lack of accountability “for people’s time” than I am a system where we can’t get basic public information. I love the idea of going to the schools and asking for the materials I’m after. I’ll let you know how that goes 🙂

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