District Fences with FOIL Requests

Written By: Robert Cox

The City School District of New Rochelle and various interested parties including the Mayor and the head of the teachers union have repeatedly claimed that there is no “inequality” issue in New Rochelle between North End and South End schools in the wake of an article in The Journal News last summer. Given the claims by the District, it seems reasonable that someone would have studied the issue of performance of students from the various schools within New Rochelle. Perhaps the most obvious analysis would be a comparison of students from Isaac E. Young Middle School and Albert Leonard Middle School at New Rochelle High School.

On October 7, 2008 I made a public records request of the City School District of New Rochelle asking for any data, research, analysis, studies, investigations, reports or documents that were prepared, compiled, drafted or published by any school principle, assistant Superintendent, Superintendent, or other district personnel as well as any outside counsel or outside consultant from the past ten years that considered, examined, studied, compared or otherwise evaluated the performance of students at New Rochelle High School based on their sub-district of origin within the City School District of New Rochelle, based on which elementary school the students attended, based on which middle school the students attended or any other similar breakdown of performance at the high school level based on where the student attended school prior to entering the high school.

I limited my request to information that does not personally identify students or where student names have been replaced by ID codes or redacted – data that could be shared at any public meeting of the Board of Education. I do not want any students names. This way neither the students nor the District is in jeopardy from making improper disclosure of personal information. Again, no personal information of students was requested.

The law requires that the District respond to a request for information in FIVE business days. By replying on October 20 the District failed to comply with the Freedom of Information Law. In its reply, the District uses terms such as “preliminary information” and “further inquiry” and the phrase “so far as I can determine at this time” which indicates the District believes it continues to be engaged in an ongoing, open-ended attempt to comply with my request and suggests that the information I requested might become available at some undetermined point in the future.

The FOIL law specifically prohibits this type of equivocal reply. The District will either turn over the requested information or they are not or they need more time and then they need to explain how much time and there are limits on that time.

Further, the law states the district shall not deny a request on the basis that the request is voluminous or that locating or reviewing the requested records or providing the requested copies is burdensome. I have spoken to two people who are covered by my request and neither has been contacted by anyone from the District about my FOIL request. Quite frankly, I do not believe the Records Access Officer made a good faith effort to retrieve the documents I requested. To address that concern I filed a new FOIL request seeking all documents she sent or received that reference my FOIL request of October 7, 2008.

The District’s flawed and illegal response to my October 7th request is a “constructive denial” of my request for public records. On that basis I filed an appeal to the Superintendent of Schools. Had the District asked for more time you would have been entitled to up to 22 business days and could even ask for more time after that. Because the District’s reply is a constructive denial of my request I have the right to appeal that denial on that basis.

To make the point that the Freedom of Information Law is not something the District should trifle with I went to the Board meeting on October 28 to bring to their attention advisory opinion FOIL-AO-12254 issued on August 2, 2000 by the New York State Committee on Open Government which states that a person found guilty of a violation of the FOIL law may serve up to fifteen days in jail and/or be fined up to $250.

Here is a PDF document of the entire FOIL exchange.

To drive home the point about trifling with FOIL requests I have filed a stack of them. The District now has FOIL requests for the following documents:

  • “Goals and Objectives for 2008-2009” document which Mr. Organisciak read from at the board meeting on August 26, 2008 but which he failed to publish on the District web site.
  • Slideshow presentation made by Dr. Jeffrey R. Korostoff at the School Board meeting on October 28, 2008 at Isaac E. Young Middle School.
  • Slideshow presented by Mr. Bongo and other district employees from Isaac E. Young Middle School at the School Board meeting on October 28, 2008 at Isaac E. Young Middle School. I asked Mr. Bongo for these documents but he declined to provide them.
  • Slide show presentation entitled “Going Green” made by Christine Coleman to the Board of Education on October 7, 2008.
  • A copy of the district’s policy regarding new admissions to the District for children from the Lincoln School District. This is related to the civil rights case going back to the 1960’s.
  • “Goals and Objectives” slideshow presentation made by Mr. Bongo at the School Board meeting on October 28, 2008 at Isaac E. Young Middle School.
  • A copy of the district’s policy regarding student-busing including but not exclusively document that explain, in detail, how distances from home to school are calculated. I have spoken to many, many families who have sought and been denied this information.
  • Access to any electronic system used to determine free-busing eligibility during normal business hours so that I might inspect it and evaluate the way it works.
  • City School District of New Rochelle Code of Conduct and the Summary version sent to parents, a topic I addressed at a board meeting in August. I will have more on this later but suffice to say the District does not want parents to see the FULL version of the Code of Conduct.
  • City School District of New Rochelle FINAL Budget for the 2008-2009 school year.
  • New Health Services Department Manual presented to the board on October 7 by Dr. Adrienne Weiss. She told the board she would put the full version onto the districts internal system and a limited version on the public web. I see no reason to withhold this information from the public and Dr. Weiss did not offer one to the board.
  • Record stating the name, public office address, title, and salary of every employee of the District if for no other reason then to remind district official that they work for a public agency.

And then finally, so that I can make even more requests going forward, I have requested a document that the District is required under FOIL to maintain at all times: a reasonably detailed current list, by subject matter, of all records in the possession of the District, whether or not available under FOIL. There ought to be plenty there to keep them busy if they want to keep playing games with my original FOIL requests for information on performance evaluations of students at the high school based on their school of origin.

The bad news for the District is under a recent change in the New York State FOIL law signed by Governor Patterson in August, I have the right to receive information in electronic form. Further, that if the agency involved has the means to do it, the agency must convert the information into a format of my choosing. Finally, the agency may only charge me for the cost of the media and is specifically prohibited from charging me for the cost of gathering the data unless the time involved exceeds two hours. That means I can request all these documents and little or no cost instead of the old twenty-five cents per page policy.

The first new batches of documents are do tomorrow so stay tuned.