In Fresno Unified, ferreting out certain school information that should be available for public inspection, like legal expenses, requires a Herculean amount of pestering.
One battle that crackled into the public conversation in recent years was over how much Fresno district officials pay outside attorneys hired to fight their legal battles. From start to finish, it took The Bee two years to get district gatekeepers to release the information its reporters asked for.
The heart of the discussion centered around one family.
Alice de Alba-Uribe had no intention of giving up her fight to keep her intellectually disabled daughter Krista Uribe at Duncan Polytechnical High School. Twice, school officials removed Uribe from the school. Each time, an administrative judge ruled Uribe could stay there.
The battle drew out over several years.
The Fresno Bee took notice in 2012, publishing a detailed account of the legal quarrel and calling on school officials to release how much they spent on outside lawyers hired to work the case. Heather Somerville, The Bee’s education reporter at the time, kept a detailed log of her repeated requests for the expenses. Each time, she was denied information on the Uribe case and other requests, like how much the district spent each year on all attorneys fighting special education cases.
District gatekeepers defended their decisions. Some of the information was confidential and the district’s legal bills were organized by how much it paid each law firm, not by what was spent on special education, labor relations, or any other category. It would be too cumbersome to re-sort the bills, the district said.
But by late July 2012, three months after her initial request, the district did provide Somerville basic information, like how much it spent on all legal fees from 2010 to 2012. After a renewed call in late 2013 by The Bee to release legal fee information — and a request from Trustee Carol Mills — officials reported in February 2014 that they spent $360,000 on Uribe’s case since 2012.
Is waiting two years to get an answer “typical?”
“Unfortunately, probably yes,” said Nikki Moore, an attorney for the California Newspaper Publishers Association. Even so, she said, “Two years is a really long time especially when that information appears to be readily accessible. That should be fairly easy for them to figure out.”
The state’s public records act gives agencies 10 days to respond, she said. And “there are reasons why that time can be extended.”
“But it doesn’t mean you can sit on a request and require a reporter to nag you until you get it,” she said. “It’s their duty to produce public records.”
That duty is still a rub point for Fresno Unifieid Trustee Janet Ryan. At a board meeting Wednesday, Ryan questioned how much time district staff should spend collecting information requested by the public. Referring to a recent request from a citizen that’s taken more than 200 hours of staff time, she said, “At what point can we say enough is enough?”
When The Bee asked her after the meeting to elaborate, Ryan said the district will do what the law requires.
Mills said in an interview last week that not all information is cataloged in the format the public or media requests it, but it’s “incumbent on any public entity, including a school district, to try to work with anybody who has made a request for information,” so long as it’s not protected by state confidentiality laws.
School board members typically aren’t aware when news agencies or citizens request information, she added. She learned about The Bee’s legal fees request after a conversation with editorial page editor Bill McEwen. She then asked Superintendent Michael Hanson to provide the information, she said. Hanson did not return several messages left by The Bee last week.
“When somebody tells me they’ve made a public records act request and we’re not responding, it does set off alarm bells in my mind,” Mills said.
As for legal fees, keeping that information private wasn’t always standard practice, former school trustee Michelle Asadoorian said in an interview last week. Yet at times which she served, it was tough for even school board members to get the information.
Asadoorian declined another run last year, but was known as a stalwart for transparency during her tenure. At one point, she dug into old school board minutes where she discovered trustees were once regularly updated about how much was spent on legal fees.
Her experience was just the opposite, she said, which is why she made several pleas at the dais to keep such records open and free to the public.
“Despite my efforts on trying to call out information on legal fees and how much are we spending it just fell on deaf ears with my colleagues and the superintendent,” she said.
In her final year and a half on the board, practices began to change. The board began receiving more frequent updates from administrators during closed-session meetings, she said.
“Maybe because they knew it was illegal,” she said.