The superintendent of a tiny San Mateo County school district says that if the resident requesting all the e-mails of her predecessor sent or received over his last five years on the job concerning a construction bond fiasco is still serious, he’ll have to wait until she can print and read each one to see if it can be released. And that, reports Mark Noack for the Half Moon Bay Review, could mean quite a wait, given the estimated 23,000-plus messages.
Many questions still swirl around a botched South Coast school construction project funded by bond money, and some local residents believe answers could be contained in a cache of undeleted emails on the computer of former La Honda-Pescadero Unified School District Superintendent Tim Beard.
The school district has been sitting on a large request to turn over an estimated 23,000 emails that were sent, received or forwarded by Beard over the five years he served as head of the district.
The school district originally received a public-records request for the emails back in 2009, but district officials say they lack the time and resources to immediately fulfill such a large request. The root of the problem is that each of those messages has to be studied to make sure all confidential information, such as student records or legal correspondence, is taken out, explained Superintendent Amy Wooliever.
She points out that the district has already fulfilled more than 20 public record requests during this last school year. But trying to satisfy the request for all of Beard’s emails would be a huge undertaking, she said.
“I don’t want it to come across that we don’t want to fulfill a public record request,” she said. “It’s just a huge request. There’s 23,000 documents here that I have to review.”
Wooliever, who started as superintendent last year, said she is the only district employee who can work on the request. The small school district has a small district staff and Wooliever herself works part time, three days of the week, during the summer months.
According to some back-of-the-envelope math, the superintendent believes going through all the emails would take more than 190 hours. And given her other duties running the district, she believes she could only spare about two hours a week to examine Beard’s correspondence for the request. At that rate, fulfilling the request would take almost two more years.
School district officials say they also would have to charge the requester for the materials to print the emails, which could amount to as much as $3,000. Wooliever said the district has no way to redact confidential information unless it prints out the emails.
Pescadero resident Bryan Burns originally filed the email request to learn more about how former Superintendent Beard handled funds from Measure I, a 2006 bond package that provided $15 million for school renovations and construction for the small district’s four campuses. In the wake of the bond passage, the district demolished nine classrooms at Pescadero Elementary and Middle schools under the false assumption that it had secured $3.2 million in state construction grants to build new structures. But the district’s contractor actually never applied for the grants, and the district had to get an emergency loan from San Mateo County to keep its doors open. Beard resigned in 2009.
Wooliever said she can start going through the former superintendent’s emails once she gets the go-ahead from Burns that he agrees to her schedule and would pay the printing costs. But Burns has responded, it will take too long and cost too much.
“The request has become so old now, it’s really become a joke,” he said. “I have hunches. There must be something good in there if they don’t want to hand them over.”
California government code states clearly that public agencies have to respond to a records request within 10 days, but there is no specific deadline for when the actual documents have to be delivered. The law indicates that requested records be made available “promptly.”
Jim Ewert, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, questioned whether the South Coast school district could prove it was making enough effort if it devoted only two hours a week to the task. The district could also have a hard time justifying the printing cost if the requester wanted it in digital format, he added.
“I think that might be considered unreasonable,” he said.
But Ewert said such a large request might be unreasonable in itself. California courts have previously ruled that a records request could be denied if a public agency would be overly burdened by the sheer volume of documents. A request for 23,000 emails would probably fit that profile, he said.
“Five years worth of emails. That’s ungodly!” he said. “I think this is one of those situations where both the requester and the agency have to be reasonable.”