How to submit a Public Records Request

Cat on paperwork

Many people hear about others putting in a request for information to the school district, but aren’t aware how easy it is to do. The truth is that because of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) any citizen can obtain records from any  public entity. This is one of the ways that we can maintain control over the people we elect. You can find information on the FOIA here:

http://www.foia.gov/

http://www.atg.wa.gov/Records.aspx#.VEluXldkxzY

How to submit a Request for Public Records:Processing Paperwork_flickr.com

 Usually, a public entity will have the instructions for requesting  information posted where it can be easily found. I was not able to find any information on the Colville web page, but I do know they keep notices posted in all buildings. I know a few different ways to put in a request.

Go down in person to the district office located in the Aster school building, 217 S. Hofstetter Street, Colville. Ask for a Public Records Request form. You can fill it out in the office, or take it home and mail it in.

– Request a Public Records Request form by phone or mail and have it mailed to you. You can then mail it back or submit it in person.

Email in your request. To the best of my knowledge, a Public Records Request should be mailed to the superintendent. The forms on the walls of the high school ask people to mail to Superintendent Michael Cashion, but they have not been updated. I do know that until a policy has been updated, the old policy still applies. So here is Superintendent Pete Lewis’ email address: pete.lewis@colsd.org

MOST IMPORTANTLY

Make sure you receive a hard copy of whatever it is you are requesting. I have often been asked to show up in person to have a conversation about my request, and sometimes I am relentlessly asked, but there is no guarantee that what you are told in a conversation is the truth. The only way to make sure you receive honest information is to get a hard copy, whether it is a denial of your request, written documents or digital copies.

You will also want a hard copy of your conversations because this will help you make sure the organization you are dealing with keeps their word to you. It’s not uncommon for you to ask for one thing and be given something different, though similar. Or another trick is that you ask for multiple items and receive only some. You need to keep track of what you aren’t being provided because that’s usually what they would rather not give you.

With hard copies, you can match what you receive against other information you have. But a conversation has no guarantees. The person you talk to could change their story at a later date or give different information to another individual. Then where will you be? It will be your word against the organization.

The organization sometimes keeps a record of everything they give you, but a conversation can be misrepresented. I once had this problem from a bill collector who put down something completely different than what I said, and then put me in default for breaking my promise. Oh yes! You can ask a bill collector to deal with you in writing, but make sure you send the request in writing to them – and you sometimes have to send it registered because only registered mail is admitted in court.

Trust me, you’ll never regret getting hard copies no matter how difficult it becomes.

A typical Public Records Request form looks similar to this one from the Washington State School Board Directors Association (WASSDA)

http://www.wssda.org/Portals/0/Documents/Policy%20and%20Legal/Public%20Records/Public%20Records%20Request%20Form.pdf

The Colville School District does not have an online form that I am aware of, which is why I am substituting this one that is easily found on their web site.

The information you need to include on your form is your

Name

Contact information

Organization (usually parent or citizen will work)

What information you are requesting

Signature (when sending an email request, you usually do not need the form or a signature, you can just send in the information they need.)

It is also important to let them know how you would like the information. You can choose these options:

– View the information in their office

– You want the information in paperwork form which you will either pick up or have mailed to you.

– You would like to receive the information electronically. With this option they will either send it to you through your email, or ask you to purchase a disk with the information on it.

In any case, they have the option to charge you a fee for the information. Here is a link to the city of Olympia’s explanation of charges:

http://olympiawa.gov/city-government/public-records-requests

If you cannot afford the fees they are asking for, check to make sure they are charging you appropriately. We have been asked to pay for information that the school is required to submit to the public for free.

For example, they asked us to pay them for a copy of the budget which by law is required to be given to the public for free. Once you remind them of the laws, they will withdraw their request for money.

Most electronic information can be obtained for free, but when all else fails, you can choose to review the information. Take a camera with you and take photographs of the information you wish to keep.

After The Form Has been Submitted:waitingattitude_flickr

After you have submitted your request, the school has five business days to respond to your request. If they take longer to respond to you, they could be in violation of the law. They can, however, let you know that it will take them a certain amount of time to process your request. For example, I put in a request in July of 2014, and they told me it will take them two years to process my request. I have the option to cancel my request, or accept their time limit. I have already been waiting a year to get information from the school on this subject, so in the interest of finally getting the information, I accepted their time limit with the knowledge that they will send it to me in batches. This is extremely rare, they usually will get it to you much faster.

They can also respond to you to let you know that the document you have requested does not exist. This is a common theme with our Colville School District. Instead of telling you the name of the document, they just tell you that the document you requested does not exist. To get around this, you can request “All documents” pertaining to your subject matter. It is a very good idea to also include a date or timeline.

The school can write to clarify the subject matter that you are requesting. They can also tell you where you can find the information. For example, if the information you are requesting is the school report card, they will probably direct you to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction website  (OSPI) where a large portion of school information can be accessed by the public.  Here it is for your convenience: http://www.k12.wa.us/

What information can I request?

Here is the list from the Attorney General’s Website:

A public record is any state or local record relating to:

  • The conduct of government; or
  • The performance of a governmental function

And which is:

  • Prepared;
  • Used; or
  • Retained by any state or local agency.

A local agency can include:

  • A city;
  • County;
  • District; or
  • Similar governmental entity.

The record may be in a variety of forms such as:

  • Writing;
  • A recording;
  • A picture;
  • An electronic disk;
  • A magnetic tape; or
  • E-mail.

What information is off limits?                                                                     childchewingpaperLG

It may seem like the off limits list is extensive, but it has very narrow margins.  It mainly pertains to very private information. For example, you may not know personal information about a teacher, but  their salary is public information. You also would not want anyone to know private information about your children, so children are off limits too. I have listed several items with their explanations so you can get an understanding and there is a link at the bottom so you can read up on more details if you wish.

Student, Institutional, and Welfare Records

 Statutory Provision: Personal information in any files maintained for students in public schools, patients or clients of public institutions or public health agencies, or welfare recipients is exempt from disclosure.  RCW 42.56.230(1)

Personal information in files maintained for employees, appointees, or elected officials of any public agency [are exempt from disclosure] to the extent that disclosure would violate their right to privacy. RCW 42.56.230(2).

Public Employee Records

Statutory Provisions: Personal information in files maintained for employees, appointees, or elected officials of any public agency [are exempt from disclosure] to the extent that disclosure would violate their right to privacy. RCW 42.56.230(2).

“Privacy” as used in an exemption means] disclosure of information about the person: (1) Would be highly offensive to a reasonable person, and (2) is not of legitimate concern to the public.  RCW 42.56.050.

Taxpayer Information

Statutory Provision: Information required of any taxpayer in connection with the assessment or collection of any tax is exempt from disclosure if the disclosure would be prohibited pursuant to RCW 82.32.330 or would violate any taxpayer’s right to privacy or result in unfair competitive disadvantage to the taxpayer. RCW 42.56.230(3).

Banking Information

Statutory Provision: Credit card numbers, debit card numbers, electronic check numbers, card expiration dates, or bank or other financial account numbers [are exempt from disclosure], except when disclosure is expressly required by or governed by other law.  RCW 42.56.230(4).

Investigative Records

Statutory Provision: Specific intelligence information and specific investigative records, compiled by investigative, law enforcement, and penology agencies, and state agencies vested with the responsibility to discipline members of any profession, the nondisclosure of which is essential to effective law enforcement or for the protection of any person’s right to privacy [are exempt from disclosure]. RCW 42.56.240(1).

Identity Of Complainants, Witnesses And Victims

Statutory Provision: Information revealing the identity of witness to or victims of a crime or a person who files a complaint with an investigative, law enforcement or penology agency is exempt if disclosure would endanger any person’s life, physical safety, or property. If at the time a complaint is filed the complainant, victim or witness indicates a desire for disclosure or nondisclosure, such desire shall govern. However, all complaints filed with the public disclosure commission about any elected official or candidate for public office must be made in writing and signed by the complainant under oath. RCW 42.56.240(2).

Sex Offender Investigative Reports

Statutory Provision: Any records of investigative reports prepared by any state, county, municipal, or other law enforcement agency pertaining to sex offenses contained in chapter 9A.44 RCW or sexually violent offenses as defined in RCW 71.09.020, which have been transferred to the Washington association of sheriffs and police chiefs for permanent electronic retention and retrieval pursuant to RCW 40.14.070(2)(b) [are exempt from disclosure].  RCW 42.56.240(3).

Let me give you a link to the full list here:  http://www.atg.wa.gov/OpenGovernment/InternetManual/Chapter2.aspx#.VEl111dkxzY

What if I am having trouble getting the information, where can I go for help?

ombudsman_wikimediaPublic Records Ombudsman
The Attorney General provides informal ombudsman assistance to members of the public who are having difficulty obtaining public records. The public records ombudsman is not your attorney but will try to assist you. You can contact the public records ombudsman by sending an e-mail to publicrecords@atg.wa.gov or by calling (360) 753-6200.

If you have any questions, I will do what I can to help you.

Good luck with your request.

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