Three Fresno Unified school board members are urging administrators to release emails between district and Harris Construction officials – a request made by The Bee 75 days ago.
One school board trustee says he believes the information has been ready to hand over for weeks, but the district continues to delay its release. Meanwhile, a federal investigation of the district’s no-bid contracts – most of which were signed with Harris Construction – is underway.
The Bee requested emails exchanged between Fresno Unified and the construction firm under the California Public Records Act as part of its investigation of the district’s use of the controversial “leaseback” financing method, which allows school districts to avoid the traditional low-bid process. The request, filed Dec. 1, asks for emails from April to August 2011 – around the time the school board approved its first leaseback contract.
In response to the request, attorneys for the district first invoked a 14-day extension, calling the request “voluminous,” and then an additional 60-day extension, imposing a deadline of Feb. 29.
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According to the California Public Records Act, extensions are designed for “unusual” cases and should not be used solely to delay access to records. The act allows the public access to information in possession of local and state agencies.
Now, three Fresno Unified trustees are skeptical about the delay.
I’m extremely disappointed that it’s taken this long.
Board President Luis Chavez
While officials for the district have said that the request still is being compiled and requires student and personnel data to be redacted, Trustee Brooke Ashjian said the documents are more accessible than the district has let on.
“I’ve seen a similar assembled packet that’s been ready to go for months so I don’t know what the difficulty is in dissecting that and giving it to you,” he said.
Board President Luis Chavez said he will be looking into the process the district follows when it comes to public records requests and that he is “extremely disappointed that it’s taken this long.”
“Legal counsel has reviewed this request. I don’t understand why it has taken this long. If it was up to me, I would release these right away. This is a basic inquiry,” he said. “One of the most important things that a public institution should have is transparency and openness.”
Trustee Carol Mills, an attorney, publicly voiced concerns over the delay at the Feb. 10 school board meeting. “I want an explanation from the district as to why we have not provided The Fresno Bee with the records that they requested and why there has been this lengthy delay,” she said.
District spokesman Miguel Arias pointed to several reasons for the delay, including a need to redact student data, information protected under attorney-client privilege and spam messages. He also has pointed to a heavy load of pending requests from media agencies, but when pressed about the issue he only named four.
If you scan other school districts and municipalities and counties, we are more transparent than any public institution is.
FUSD spokesman Miguel Arias
“And that doesn’t include all of the other public requests from members of the public,” he said.
When pressed about those non-media requests, Arias identified two, totaling six pending public requests.
Arias would not further discuss the details for the delays.
“I’m not going to comment on the specific items for you because we have to go thoroughly through them, but in general any request that generic, we will pull a variety of emails that are not for public disclosure,” he said. “The public interest is not outweighed by the privacy and confidentially requirements that we’re responsible for adhering to, so we’ve got to be deliberate in the process that we follow.”
Last week, Arias said that another request made by The Bee, unrelated to no-bid contracts, could impact the deadline of the original public records request. He later retracted that comment and said the two requests would be treated separately.
“Our deadline of Feb. 29 remains the same and our goal to get it to you as soon as possible remains the same,” he said. “If you scan other school districts and municipalities and counties, we are more transparent than any public institution is.”