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Guest view: Board members have access to district records

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opinion River Falls, 54022
River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

All Board of Education members have access to the information they need about the district and our work. This includes, and is not limited to, access to public records of the district and responses to questions about those records. No board members are treated differently in this regard.

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Board Policy (#1170): "Public Records Policy and Notice" is posted on our website and provides the public and all Board of Education members access to district public records. Additionally, this policy allows for printing and retrieval fees of such records to be waived for a board member if the records requested are necessary for the proper performance of the board member's official duties and can be made available through reasonable expenditures of staff time and other resources.

The policy identifies the criteria to be used to determine whether the cost of a records request should be waived for a board member. This policy was last approved by the Board of Education on Feb. 14, 2006, and is not new. It protects taxpayers from paying for the cost

of unreasonable record requests by an individual board member; just as the policy protects taxpayers from unreasonable and voluminous requests by members of the public.

Last week in a letter to the editor in the Hudson Star-Observer, board member Gehrke complained that she was being charged for "information board members are entitled to review." I agree that board members are entitled to review the information she requested about the selection process to hire pre-referendum architects. The critical question is how to review the information in a way that gets concerns addressed, questions answered, and minimizes the time and resources it takes away from the primary district work of advancing student learning.

In her letter, Ms. Gehrke stated that she was interested in obtaining paperwork in three areas. Her actual records request was for nine separate kinds of records. The administration handled her records request as it would from any other board member and located and retrieved 470 pages of documents that are now waiting to be mailed or reviewed. The cost of staff retrieval time was $311.04.

Based on Board Policy #1170, the fees for previous record requests of Ms. Gehrke have been waived in the past. Since becoming a board member, Ms. Gehrke has made nine other separate records requests and received 180 pages of public records at no cost. This is in addition to all the records and materials provided to all board members. The most recent records request for 470 pages was her only request where a charge was indicated because of the size and scope.

It is common for board members to call or meet with the superintendent to clarify questions and concerns about numerous topics and to review specific documents. In this particular case, other board members called and met with the superintendent about the same matter as Ms. Gehrke's records request. Talking with the superintendent first can narrow the scope of records needed by a board member so that costs might be minimized or waived.

Per policy, Superintendent Bowen-Eggebraaten consulted with me about how to handle Ms. Gehrke's records request and whether the cost should be waived. Considering the extensive scope and size of the request about a decision that was already approved unanimously by the board four weeks earlier, I made the decision to charge board member Gehrke in this particular instance.

In an editorial in the same edition, the Hudson Star-Observer objected to having board members pay for public records. To disagree with a policy adopted by the full board is certainly their right, but I am offended at their suggestion that the board is treating Ms. Gehrke differently because she is "uncooperative," and that it "hints that perhaps Gehrke is on to something with which the district is uncomfortable." This is simply not true.

I would have made the same decision to charge for the records request if it had been made by any board member. It is unfortunate that the HSO decided to make such inflammatory statements when they have not asked the district about the process to hire the pre-referendum architect firm. Both Vice President Lynn Robson and I were involved in the selection of this firm and support the selection process that was used.

Bottom line, there is no smoking gun here. Hoffman provided the lowest cost for the service requested and has an outstanding track record of performance. I invite the editor and publisher of the HSO to meet with us and investigate the entire selection process if they have concerns because the board and district have nothing to hide.

Inflammatory statements made without consideration of all the facts distract from the overwhelmingly positive work of the teachers, support staff, administrators, and the Board of Education of the Hudson School District. It is my hope that all board members and the community will work together to improve Hudson Schools and keep our time, energy and dollars focused on our primary mission -- providing a high quality education for all students.

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