Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council’s Christa Westerberg, an attorney, tells us open records law is about democracy. Citizens have the right to records to better inform themselves about government and ultimately hold it accountable. The law says providing access to information is “declared to be ….an integral part of the routine duties of officers and employees.” Citizens are entitled to courteous and efficient service. The law also says “custodians of public records must respond as soon as practicable and without delay.” The state attorney general’s office advises that responses should be issued within 10 working days. For simple requests, it should be sooner.
I’m a taxpaying citizen who has actively sought information/records from city and school government for over a decade. I wish I could report that government officials/employees have always been cooperative, courteous and supportive of the public’s right to know or responded in a timely manner, but sadly, I can’t. The multiple negative experiences would fill a book.
Speaking of governmental responses and negative experiences:
An incident occurred at New Berlin West High School in March that created quite a buzz. It seems Superintendent Paul Kreutzer spotted a male student who had his head down on the desk during first hour study hall in the cafeteria. Displeased, Dr. Kreutzer confronted the boy and asked for his ID. The study hall supervisor, a ten-year NBPS employee, was subsequently confronted and reportedly reduced to tears.
Two academically high- achieving senior girls brought this matter to the general public’s attention via their privilege of the floor speeches at a NB School Board meeting. They expressed dismay and several concerns about what had happened. One girl referred to the reprimanded student as having “learning disabilities”. The girls POF speeches can be heard by clicking on the District Website's podcast of the March 9, 2009 BOE meeting. (Look for it listed under the heading 08-09 BOE meetings)
Last summer, I spoke with one of those girls and her parent. Both clearly believed Dr. Kreutzer’s conduct had been inappropriate. The parent contended that Dr. Kreutzer exhibited poor management by interfering and failing to follow the “chain of command” and felt Dr. Kreutzer should have spoken to the study hall supervisor and school principal first and let them handle it. His daughter said Dr. Kreutzer should stop micro-managing and focus instead on hiring good teachers and providing students with more educational opportunities.
In July, I emailed an information/records request to Superintendent Kreutzer and Asst. Superintendent Joe Garza. In that request, I described what I’d heard regarding the study hall incident, asked if it was accurate and if not what had occurred. I also referred to New Berlin West ‘s camera surveillance.
Dr. Kreutzer did not respond.
I got a written response in the mail from Mr. Garza telling me that I would not be getting the requested information or access to the video recording.
In his letter, Garza attempted to justify that refusal. He argued that the video was made in a restricted and private setting. Oh, really? Is that how he views our public schools, public school cafeteria , and school halls? He argued that granting me access to the video might compromise the school’s security! Garza also stated that certain laws likely prevented the district from disclosing records containing personally identifiable information about students without their consent.
I was not satisfied with the District response and took a 2-page letter that explained why to District Office on Friday, August 28. For example, I pointed out that nowhere in Garza’s letter did it indicate any attempt had been made to contact the parties involved, much less obtain their consent.
My letter also mentioned that I was in the process of getting the consent.
That sparked some quick action. District administrators/officials contacted the boy’s family and met with the boy, his mom, and the stepfather on the following Monday to show them the video and discuss the study hall incident. In a phone conversation I had with the stepfather a day or two later, he told me about the meeting. He also confided that he made District administration aware his wife and stepson had already given me signed consents to view the video and they weren’t rescinding them.
Indeed, I had consents to view the video from the boy, his mom, and the study hall supervisor. ( Because the stepfather was not the boy’s legal guardian, I had not asked him for written consent.) By the way, the boy was 18 and no longer attending West. He had graduated in June.
Even after I brought those signed written consents to District Office, District administrators refused to supply the information I’d requested regarding the study hall incident or give me access to the video record.
To top it off, I received a rude, threatening letter from School Board President John Kegel and VP Dave Maxey. If they thought such tactics would intimidate or deter me, they’re mistaken. Someone should explain such important concepts as public service and transparency in government/the public’s right to know, to those guys. Furthermore, if our Board members and District administrators were frugal with taxpayers’ money, they would not be sending me letters by courier. (A courier told me it cost about $15 to deliver a letter to my house).
In my subsequent letter, I included this reminder: Per School Board Policy, the Superintendent, or in his absence the Director of Human Resources/Operations, is the designated legal custodian of records in the school district.
A student might put his or her head down on a desk in first hour study hall for any number of reasons, including illness.
If the superintendent expects students to spend their time studying when they are not taking a class, should the District be allowing senior privilege, which enables students to skip their early morning study hall?
As for enforcing a no-head-down-on-desk rule: I checked NB West’s student/parent handbook and found it contained several conduct rules but none about kids resting their heads on desks in study hall. I asked the District for a copy of any document that had been provided to study hall supervisors which conveyed that students were not permitted to put their heads down on desks in study hall. The District failed to provide one, so apparently none existed.