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Spokane Public Schools to pay $130,000 in public records dispute

Spokane Public Schools will pay a Spokane woman with a history of needling officials $130,000 after failing to comply with a 2009 public records request.

Laurie Rogers is a private tutor, frequent critic and describes herself as an advocate for transparent government.

She had filed a request for all “promotional materials on the 2006 and 2009 bonds and levies.”

The district failed to fulfill her request for records when it took a narrow definition of her inquiry and made missteps.

“We don’t do promotional materials. We do informational,” said Mark Anderson, associate superintendent. “We quickly gathered all the materials we thought complied and gave them to her. What we didn’t realize was our archivist only went back to 2008, and we would have needed to ask each individual employee (for documents going back to 2006).”

The district also failed to include an index to list legal justification for redactions within the public documents.

Seattle attorney Michele Earl-Hubbard, who co-represented Rogers, called her client “brave” for taking on the district in a Spokane Superior Court case.

“The way they handled her requests was not appropriate,” she said.

Rogers accepted a judgment offer from the district last month to resolve the case.

Rogers received hundreds more records with fewer redactions after hiring a lawyer. “I don’t take frivolous cases. This case got stronger as we went along,” Earl-Hubbard said.

She thinks the district cast her client as a nuisance when it told people swept up in the records request that it was Rogers who sought the information.

“I think she look a lot of heat in the community because she called the district out on their activity,” Earl-Hubbard said. “She had a legitimate reason to make these requests.”

Cases like this are becoming more common. Just last month, a judge fined University of Washington $720,000 for withholding 12,000 pages of records in a case where a professor claimed bias prevented her from receiving tenure, according to news reports. Those records may have helped her win the case.

The district is using the Rogers case as a learning experience, Anderson said. “We made some honest mistakes, and that’s why we needed to get better.”

An employee has since been hired to process public records requests rather than the past practice of having administrators fit records gathering into their day. All staff members who become involved in processing requests must be trained.

The district is working on its website with the hope of offering public record searches and downloads. The district also wants to buy a new internal electronic archiving system so officials can more easily retrieve documents using keyword searches.

And the district is forming a committee to consult with them on how to better handle public records requests that appear to be overbroad. One issue officials want to address is making requests more specific. In some cases anonymous people seek all records with a word like “she” in them.

The district spent $350,000 on requests last year, Superintendent Shelley Redinger said.

Spokane Public Schools “can’t be using taxpayer money to pay for mistakes with records, including lawsuits,” she said. “We expect that all stakeholders want this system to work as effectively and efficiently as possible with the ultimate goal of providing our children with a quality education.”

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