For Marilyn Flachman, it seemed like a simple request.
In Colorado, open records laws clearly say public employee salaries, which are funded by taxpayers, are available to the public.
Last year, the district was having financial problems so Flachman, a former Adams County School District 50 board president, wanted to see the details of most schools’ largest expenditure — staff salaries.
In February 2015, Flachman filed the records request for the 1,000 or so teachers, administrators and other school employees, and she assumed a spreadsheet would appear in her email in box within days.
What she got was a five-month battle, a request for thousands of dollars and, with the help of an attorney who agreed to work for free, a brick of paper that she struggled to wheel out of her attorney’s office.
“I supported the concept of transparency and making information available to the public,” Flachman, who worked at the district for decades and served eight years on the school board, told Watchdog.org.
The school district initially said it didn’t have the record, then tried to appease her with a general overview on salary costs and contracts for some administrators and temporary teachers. She knew the records existed because the school board received detailed salary information when she served on it.
She wanted the whole list, preferably in electronic form so she could sort and analyze it. She had spent most of her career at the district as a library media specialist teaching students about data and the Internet and felt in 2015 schools should have that basic data.
“They have many electronic data points about student progress but they can’t supply a list of staff salaries?” she questioned.
The school district said the only list they had also had home addresses — a detail that is not public under open records laws — and district staff was not required to create a document.
District spokesman Steve Saunders echoed that sentiment.
“All I can really tell you is similar to what our attorney told Dr. Flachman at the time and later told her attorney in writing and phone conversations,” he wrote in an email response. “District 50 makes every effort to comply with public records request(s), but it is our policy to follow state law and not create new documents, which is what she asked us to do.”
A lawyer working pro-bono for the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition got involved, pointing out the district’s own policy says if a record contains confidential information the district will work to release the public portion.
Flachman said a school board member charged her request was “bullying” and an administrator told her if she didn’t like that the teacher information isn’t public, then she should have the General Assembly require that it be made public. Colorado Open Records Act already does, saying compensation information is not part of the confidential records governments can keep on employees.
After several letters back and forth, the district responded that removing the private information would cost $4,000 in redaction time, when usually a quick database query can produce the required information with the home addresses left out.
Finally the district relented, providing hundreds of pages of records with staff salary information. But not very helpfully.
“Everything is mixed up,” she said. “Nothing is by job classification and there’s no rhyme or reason to my huge tree [of paper] that took a hand dolly to wheel out of the attorney’s office.”
She still had to pay $750 for the paper copies, which after the five month of battling were out of date.
The victory was incremental, but Flachman hoped to get some help from the legislature this past spring.
State Sen. John Kefalas introduced Senate Bill 37, which would have required governments to provide electronic databases if the records exist in that form, prohibiting governments from modifying databases into PDFs that can’t be sorted or analyzed.
“We’re trying to make government as open as possible,” said Kefalas, a Fort Collins Democrat.
The measure did not become law, but neither Kefalas nor Flachman are giving up.
“The bill died in committee and we are planning to bring back a bipartisan version next session,” Kefalas said in an email. “There is currently a robust stakeholder process underway.”
Kefalas said a group has met a few times since May to address technical issues related to open data policies and access to digital data files. A larger working group will get together starting this month in preparation for another go at it in the next legislative session.
Flachman remains optimistic.
“I would not be surprised to see some form of legislation on open records reappear during the 2017 session of the Colorado Legislature,” she said.
By taking on the school district and enlisting a state senator to try to reform a vague and out-of-date statute, Flachman won a small victory for Colorado taxpayers and open government, and deserves to be the Washington Times Unsung Hero.
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