The Fresno Unified School District has twice postponed public release of emails between district employees and Harris Construction officials. The Bee requested the emails under the California Public Records Act as part of its investigation of the district’s no-bid contract practices.
On Dec. 1, The Bee requested copies of emails exchanged between the two organizations over a five-month period in 2011, when the school board approved its first “leaseback” contract. The controversial financing method allows school districts to avoid the traditional low-bid process.
Since August 2011, the board has approved 25 leaseback contracts, most of which were awarded to Harris Construction. A federal investigation of the district’s leaseback contracts with the Harris and Bush construction firms is underway.
Fresno Unified’s initial response on Dec. 11 to The Bee’s public records request came from the law firm Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo. The firm invoked a 14-day extension, saying it was needed because the request will require the search for records from locations other than the office processing the request, and that the request is “voluminous.”
According to the California Public Records Act, that extension is designed for “unusual” cases and should not be used solely to delay access to records. The Public Records Act allows the public access to information in possession of local and state agencies.
On Dec. 28, the district’s law firm requested an additional 60-day extension “due to the volume of the records,” and also pointed to limited staff available during the district’s holiday break. Winter break for Fresno Unified was Dec. 21 to Jan. 8. While the central office’s staff does not have those days off like teachers, many employees choose to take vacation during that time, a district spokesman said.
In the response, attorneys said to anticipate communication regarding the request on or about Feb. 29. District spokesman Miguel Arias said Friday that the requested emails will be made available by that date.
The district should be open and transparent.
Fresno Unified trustee Carol Mills
Arias also pointed to other outstanding public records requests for the delay. There are four other pending requests for public information, according to Arias. None of those are from The Bee.
Attorneys for Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Rund & Romo have not responded to questions about the request.
Districts across the state have backed away from the leaseback financing method since Fresno Unified was taken to court after questions were raised about whether the district rightfully used the process. Leaseback deals originally were designed by the state Legislature to allow cash-strapped districts to build schools by paying back contractors over time. Under the process, districts can hand-pick which contractors are awarded projects.
Questions arose after Fresno Unified was sued by a different Fresno builder who contends the district deliberately misused the leaseback process. That case is pending in Superior Court.
Some Fresno Unified trustees have spoken out about the public record request, and say they, too, would like to have access to the emails in question.
“We should be responding in a timely fashion to public records requests. There should not have to be multiple delays in order to get public documents,” trustee Carol Mills said. “The district should be open and transparent.”
Trustee Brooke Ashjian said he has asked questions about how the district began using the process but has not gotten answers.
“What you’re looking for is what I’m looking for,” Ashjian told a Bee reporter. “We still don’t know what happened, and I think that it’s the public’s right to know what led up to the lease-leasebacks that are now being subpoenaed. I think it’s really important for Fresno Unified to comply in a timely matter. For us not to do that erodes more of the public trust and insinuates there’s something to hide.”