Ohio’s public-records and open-meetings laws can be effective only if governments know and follow them.
Recent instances show that school districts, in particular, should brush up on their responsibilities under the law.
Regarding records, it’s simple: State law holds that any record held by a public body that deals with its business “or other activities” is public.
It doesn’t matter if a lawyer drew up the document or whether it’s in its final form.
The law has provisions to allow records to be withheld under very specific circumstances, but school districts and other government entities often don’t cite any of those reasons when refusing to honor a records request; they simply say they don’t have to honor the request.
Dispatch reporter Collin Binkley has cited five incidents since March in which central Ohio school districts have withheld records without justification.
Three– Gahanna-Jefferson, Grandview Heights and Olentangy– wouldn’t show the public proposed new contracts with a superintendent and teachers unions until after or just before they were approved by their boards of education.
Columbus City Schools denied the existence of some records in an investigation of alleged brutality against a special-needs student by employees.
Hilliard school officials claimed they couldn’t turn over documents regarding accusations that an athletic director misused money because the matter was being investigated by police–even though police hadn’t been called yet.
Such tightfistedness with public records is wrong in any event, because the documents belong to the public, whose taxes support public schools.
But it especially works against the public good when it prevents the public from knowing anything about a proposed action by the board of education until it is a done deal.
The point of open meetings and public records isn’t just to satisfy people’s curiosity; it is to allow them to attempt to influence actions.
For example, protesting overly generous employee raises or a change in the school calendar is a lot less likely to be effective after a vote has been taken.
When state open-records law was updated in 2007 and then-Attorney General Marc Dann urged local governments to interpret the law in favor of openness, the Ohio School Boards Association advised its members to the contrary.
For example, it encouraged school boards to have their employees ask people requesting records to identify themselves, even though the law doesn’t allow that to be a requirement for releasing records.
It also advised, incorrectly, that emails about official school business aren’t public if they occur via private email accounts.
School districts owe the public that sustains them the same degree of openness required of all governments.
If employees don’t understand that, either district policy should change or training should be improved.– Columbus Dispatch