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UPDATED: Prince William County schools charge $40k for FOIA

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News,Mark Tapscott,Watchdog Blog

A right-leaning grassroots citizens advocacy group that asked Prince William County education officials for information on the public school system’s check records, employee expense reports and other mundane cost data will have to cough up $40,000.

That’s how much William Reid III, of the Prince William County Public Schools’ (PWCPS) office of equity and compliance told the Virginia Americans for Prosperity it would cost to produce the documents the group requested in a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) letter.

Here’s what the advocacy group requested:

1. “We are looking for all check registries and which would include all vendors.(2011).
2. “We would like the cell phone bills of all employees that have a district phone. (2011)
3. “We would like all credit card statements from all departments. (2011)”

Admittedly, that’s a rather broad document request but odds are much of the requested materials would be available electronically. Curiously, in his cost estimate, Reid projected that two hours would be required for a PWCPS employee, paid at a rate of $37.50 per hour, to, presumably, enter the computer commands required to copy the check registries.

He also estimated that 820 hours would be required for an employee paid $32.50 per hour to produce nearly 70,000 paper copies of the phone records and credit card statements, at a total cost of $40,620. Add the $75 for the check registries and Reid’s total comes to $40,695.

It turns out that the grassroots group was asking on behalf of the Education Action Group (EAG), a Michigan-based education reform group that is studying public school spending practices.

Most of the school systems EAG has approached have provided requested materials at no cost or charged only nominal fees. Most states, including Virginia, include provisions in their FOIA laws allowing for waiver or reduction of such reproduction costs when the requestor is a journalist or other individuals deemed to be acting in the public interest.

Steve Gunn of EAG said his group last year “was shocked to receive an invoice from Boston Public Schools, seeking $2,000 for an information request much longer than the one sent to Prince William County schools. In retrospect that seems like a bargain.

“Our guess is that Prince William County school officials don’t like to spend time sharing public information with the public, and they’ve found a very effective way to discourage citizens from bothering to seek data. “Virginia lawmakers should step in and put an end to this type of nonsense. While a small fee to cover actual costs may be appropriate, an estimate of $40,000 is another way of telling the public to get lost. “We hardly think that corresponds with the spirit of transparency that prompted lawmakers in Virginia (and across the nation) to create freedom of information laws in the first place.” The Washington Examiner Watchdog page has requested comment from Reid and will update this post when it is received. UPDATE: School flak says “we are eager to comply” Phil Kavits, communications director for the PWCPS, tells the Examiner that Reid “is eager to comply with the transparency request and do it in a way that satisfies them as long as it doesn’t interfere with our students’ needs.” Kavits said “we can probably do that” when asked if the documents sought by EAG could be provided electronically, but he noted that the phone records would have to be reviewed for information and data that should be redacted for privacy reasons. For more from EAG on the issue, go here.
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