MCPS Says It Will ‘Hold Firm’ on Fees for Public Records
Some give examples of redacted information provided at no charge
The Montgomery County Board of Education at a recent meeting.
An increasing volume of public records requests has prompted Montgomery County Public Schools to “hold firm” on charging fees instead of granting waivers, a district official said.
The change in philosophy was included in a district response to a Bethesda Beat request to see public records — credit card receipts for 12 months for school board members and the superintendent.
The Maryland Public Information Act says government bodies must make public records available and may charge a “reasonable fee” to search for, gather and provide copies of records. The first two hours of labor must be at no charge.
The law also says the government body may waive the fee for information if the waiver is “in the public interest.”
In response to the Bethesda Beat public-records request last month, MCPS spokesman Derek Turner wrote that the school system would charge a $115.56 fee to provide the information.
The fee was based upon three hours of work by a communications specialist at a rate of $38.52 per hour.
In a separate response, MCPS Communications Specialist Joanne Causey said there are approximately 100 pages to review for redactions in response to the request. She said two hours of “administrative time” was used “in the gathering of the documents and the processing of” the request, so providing the expense records would take an additional three hours.
In fiscal year 2019, MCPS employed 11 people with a job title of “communications specialist,” who earned annual salaries ranging from $62,275.20 to $89,523.20. Hourly rates ranged from $29.94 to $43.04.
When Bethesda Beat asked for fees associated with the MPIA request to be waived because the information is in the public interest, Causey declined.
“With the persistent increase in MPIA request submissions, we feel it’s necessary to hold firm on fees,” Causey wrote in an email. “We also believe we need to be judicious with tax-payer resources.”
It is common for news organizations and other watchdogs to review public records showing the use of government credit cards. Those records had added significance five years ago, when scrutiny by the Parents Coalition of Montgomery County and reporting by local media highlighted improper and questionable spending practices by board members and at least one senior staff official, related to the use of MCPS credit cards.
The Office of the State Prosecutor looked into the spending, but found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing. The school system, though, took steps to tighten its spending practices.
Rebecca Snyder, executive director of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association, said the reasoning for the fee to review public records, as explained by MCPS, “violates the spirit of” freedom of information laws.
“I don’t think I’ve heard recently such a transparently open way of saying, ‘We’re getting too many requests, so we’re going to administer a fee’ to … dissuade people from filing requests at all,” Snyder said in an interview this week. “It’s so bold. When you come down to it, they’re spending taxpayer money to keep the information away from you. There are legitimate things that need to be shielded from a PIA, but that’s just nuts.”
Turner said MCPS received 215 MPIA requests in fiscal year 2019 and 200 in fiscal year 2018. Processing the requests “required thousands of hours of staff time to gather, review and redact,” Turner wrote in an email.
“In short, we are receiving significantly more requests and significantly more complicated requests every year,” Turner wrote. “… The state recognizes this impact of these requests and allows government entities to recover costs above two hours. As a note, I am not sure $115.56 is really a dissuasive amount for a for profit news outlet.”
“This is not about the money,” Bethesda Beat and Bethesda Magazine Editor and Publisher Steve Hull said. “It’s about the principle and the precedent. There’s no doubt the information we are seeking is in the public interest.
“The issue about school board members’ expense account spending several years ago was questionable to say the least. We feel strongly the public has an interest in knowing about school board spending since then.”
Former school board member Jill Ortman-Fouse said in an interview that she did not have to pay for the response to a PIA request she filed in August seeking data about student dropout rates over the past three years. The 29-page document has some data suppressed, or redacted, to protect student privacy, according to the file.
Janis Sartucci of the Parents’ Coalition, which often asks for copies of public records, said she received a 304-page response to a PIA request last week. The records contained redactions and she was not charged, she said.
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org