February 24, 2004

Brandywine School Board adopted a revised policy which makes it somewhat more difficult for someone from the general public to obtain information and authorized the district lawyer to begin work on one that would do the same for board members.

The separate moves evidently were coincidental, although Thomas Lapinski, the board member who had a recent request denied, thus raising the issue, voted against the revised outsider policy.

In other matters at its meeting on Feb. 23, the board:

  • Heard from several students a request for more stringent evaluation of teachers;

  • Approved what the chief financial officer promised would be the final version of a budget for this fiscal year;

  • Was told that the effort to secure grants is running well ahead of a year ago;

  • Signed off on renovation plans for Forwood Elementary;

  • Transferred money to the Concord High renovation project to cover the cost of fixing an unexpected building defect;

  • Considered new union contracts covering maintenance and custodial workers; and

  • Sent back for modification a proposed policy governing early termination of contracted teachers and administrators.

Board president Nancy Doorey said the revised Freedom of Information Act policy does no more than bring district practice into compliance with the underlying state law. The anticipated new policy regarding board members' requests, she said, would merely codify what already is standard practice.

Lawyer Ellen Cooper said there was no intent in the revision of the information policy, which dates back to 2000, to infringe on the public's right to access public documents.

The revisions primarily set a 50˘-a-page fee for copying documents and require the requestor to pay the dollar equivalent of staff time needed to excise confidential data from documents containing matter that is in the public domain. Electronic documents would cost $1, unchanged from the previous policy.

"The law doesn't say we 'may' require, it said we 'must' require" payment of a copying fee, Cooper said.

Because the law provides access only to original documents, not copies, requestors must come in person to the district office during normal business hours to inspect the originals before obtaining desired copies, and cannot ask to be sent copies by mail or electronic transmission, Cooper explained.

If the request were for a copy of an original document, that would have to be "generated," she said. Then it falls under the purview of a separate Brandywine policy covering requests for information that does not presently exist in document form or in the requested format. Since that is not covered by law, that policy confers broader discretion on district officials to decide what should be released. It also requires the requestor to pay the equivalent cost of producing a new document.

Asked for an example, Cooper said that someone requesting a tracking of a line in the district's monthly financial reports over a period of time would have the option of being allowed to see all of those entire documents under the law or to ask for and be willing to pay the cost of extracting the data and producing a new document containing just the desired information and accept a determination of whether having a staff person do that was reasonable and not overly time consuming.

The policy also specifies that only a "citizen of the state of Delaware shall be granted access to the district's public records." The state law has the same caveat. A source in the legal field outside the school district told Delaforum, however, that it is uncertain what constitutes state citizenship. Residency, for instance, does not confer citizenship at the national level.

Cooper told the board that she dealt with that issue in connection with three of the five requests she has handled since taking over as the district's Freedom of Information Act officer which came from organizations. She asked if they were incorporated in Delaware. When the response was in the negative, access was denied, she said.

The policy was being revised "so dollars intended for the education of children of the district go to the education of children of the district," Doorey said. "It's not concern over volume [of requests]. It was concern over whether we were violating state law."

Lapinski questioned the 50˘ fee, which Doorey and Cooper both said was within the range of what the state attorney general has determined to be reasonable. Doorey acknowledged during that discussion that state Department of Education policy, dating back to the 1970s, provides for a 10˘-a-page fee and that that is seldom actually collected.

By way of illustration, the agenda document for the meeting, which is a public document covered by the law, contained 173 pages. Copies were distributed free at the meeting but, theoretically, a request for it could cost someone either $86.50 or whatever it is calculated it costs in the way of paper and machine and staff time to run 173 pages through a copying machine.

Willie Pollins, a district resident and lawyer by profession, urged the board to reject the revised policy on the grounds that "50˘ [a page] is a little steep" and that it was unreasonable to require him to come from his office in Philadelphia during the workday. "If they are public records, they should be easily available to the public," he said. Williams was the only member of the public to speak during the comment portion of the sparsely attended meeting.

All that could prove academic in the short run, however. Doorey and superintendent Bruce Harter said the district is currently exploring ways to post all documents considered to be of general public interest on its Internet site. That also is being considered as a better way to distribute material which now goes out each week in packet form to board members.

Lapinski did not explain why he ended up voting against adopting the revised policy. Susan Skelly said later that she abstained from that vote, although she specifically said during the discussion that she had no objection to the policy, because she questioned the need for the district to have separate approaches to providing public documents and information not in document form. Craig Gilbert did not attend the meeting, which meant the revised policy was approved by the minimum four votes.

The dispute over board member access came after Harter apparently rejected as too time consuming a request for Lapinski for some information. Lapinski said he withdrew the request after Harter told him it would take significant time to respond. But Lapinski called the matter to the attention of the other board members in a memo. Neither man said what the information sought was.

Doorey raised the issue as an unposted 'other' item on the agenda and said that the board had previously agreed that such requests should be considered by the entire board and be binding on the administration only if a majority agreed their worth outweighed the effort needed to respond.

"None of us has the authority on our own to redirect staff time," she said. "We do not exist as individuals; we only exist as a board," David Adkins said.

Lapinski said he has never requested anything that he did not share with the other board members. He objected to the matter being brought up at the meeting, saying, "I thought we had agreed there would be no surprises [at] open meetings."

After Lapinski noted that there was no policy covering the situation, there was discussion over whether there should be one. In the end, it was decided, without a formal vote, to have Cooper deal with the matter and recommend whether it would be best handled with a part of an existing policy or as a new one.

The four students who addressed the board were reporting on the most recent meeting of the district's Student Advisory Council, which represents its high and middle schools.

Kia Childs said the students want administrator evaluators to distinguish between teachers who may be liked but are relatively ineffective and those not so popular who do get the material across. "They have to do more than just rattle off facts," she said.

Jennifer Grasso said that teacher evaluations are not representative of actual performance. "When they know you're coming, the clean off their desk, change their lesson plan and even their appearance. They should be judged on what they really are."

Shaharra Howie said teachers "should hold workshops and things" on Saturdays or during the summer rather than turn their classes over to substitutes. "Some students like substitutes but most think the [regular] teacher ought to be there," she said.

Childs called for a return to numeric rather than alphabetic grades as a way to measure variations in student performance and class standing. Andrew Meyer calls for a standard curriculum so that students in all three district high schools receive the same material and said that middle school students objected to dress codes.

The girls all attend Mount Pleasant. Meyer goes to Concord. Doorey praised them for coming to the meeting and said their report was informative and valuable.

The 'final' budget for the year ending June 30 contains, as Delaforum previously reported, an upward revision of $116,441 as the result of a midyear change in the way DelDOE finances staffing a special education pilot project in which the Brandywine district is participating. That will not result in any change in the program or the personnel involved, but will enable the district to restore cuts in its extra-time and professional development programs, according to David Blowman, the chief financial officer.

Administrator Judy Curtis told the board that federal, state and private grants received from July 1 through the end of calendar 2003 totaled nearly $9.9 million. That compares to $9.4 million received in all of the fiscal year ended June 30, 2003. The more recent figure included $7.1 million for federal programs and $2.6 million from the state. Curtis said M.B.N.A. bank provided 97% of the private money.

The Forwood renovation is to begin after the school year ends in June and take a year to compete. As previously reported, the project includes a redesign of the driveway and a new distribution of classrooms, including what amounts to a separate kindergarten wing.

The board authorized transfer of $800,000 of unspent money from the Harlan Intermediate School renovation fund to pay for fixing a problem with exterior masonry discovered during this year's renovation of Concord High. Administrator Jeffrey Edmison said that, except for some window work, the Harlan project is finished and the money to be transferred is not needed there.

The union contracts were discussed by the board in executive session behind closed doors. District public information officer Wendy Lapham had not responded to a Delaforum request for information about their contents or status as this article was being prepared.

Several district policies were renewed with minor changes. However, one spelling out in detail the procedure to be followed in order to terminate a teacher or administrator covered by a contract was tabled for further work after Lapinski pointed out that the details did not include a provision "to protect the rights of the individual."

© 2004. All rights reserved.

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