I admit it. I like facts. I like details. Charts and data are my friends. Public records serve as source documents for much of what I share here.
As the only news organization in Alabama devoted exclusively to covering the world of K-12 public education, I regularly request public records related to public education.
Sometimes I am able to request the information informally and receive it expediently.
Other times I’m asked to complete forms or send in emails with my request clearly delineated.
And then I wait.
Waiting is frustrating, and some folks make me wait longer than others.
The current wait is by far the longest yet.
See, I requested payroll records from Hoover City Schools on January 11, 2014. I modified the request on January 27, 2014, in an effort to make it easier to fill.
No fewer than 25 emails have been sent back and forth between Hoover’s Public Information Officer, Jason Gaston, and me….most of them being follow-ups from me asking for immediate production of the records.
Gaston has sent no written denial, nor has he provided written notification of when the request will be filled.
Sure I could file a lawsuit (the only remedy available), but that just costs everyone money and the children in the classrooms are the ones whose pockets are drained for those costs.
So for now, I will keep waiting.
How long have I waited so far?
Three-hundred and fifty-plus days. And counting.
Come along with me as I share the nearly-year-long journey to obtain these public records.
The Public Records Request
Here’s the initial request, dated January 11, 2014 (which was really an expanded request from December 13, 2013):
Here’s the modified request, dated January 27, 2014:
Notice I didn’t request the document be formatted any particular way, didn’t request a column for this or a column for that.
I simply asked that all of the information in bold be included in whatever documents are provided.
I did ask if possible for the documents to be provided electronically, but even that wasn’t a requirement.
(A few years ago, in response to a public records request to view journal entries, Hoover’s Chief School Financial Officer Cathy Antee chose to print hundreds and hundreds of pages of journal entries rather than allow me to access the records electronically…she even shipped the printouts to the Hoover library where I could view them. Until that point, the journals were not being printed. A story for another day.)
To be clear, W-2’s are not public records. I mentioned W-2’s only to direct Gaston to which department might have the information requested.
And before you ask the question…yes, payroll records of public school employees are public records. Scroll to the end of this post to find links to other states’ public school employee salary databases.
While many of the databases are posted by media, Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction actually posts their own.
And in Illinois, state law requires the state department of education and each individual school district to post public school employees’ compensation online.
First Things First: Payroll Records Are Public Records, Period
Payroll records are public records. Period. Salary, stipends, supplements, overtime, bonuses….all of it. Public money, Public record.
The Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press publishes an excellent Open Government Guide for each state, including Alabama. A quick search of the PDF for the word “salary” turns up multiple confirmations, including sources, that payroll records are public records. This 1996 Attorney General opinion is generally cited as the original source document.
Yet Jason Gaston, Hoover Public Information Officer, has so far refused to provide this information. After months and months and months of emails, on December 19, Gaston stated verbally to me that the “document doesn’t exist in that form”, a much-abused and terribly inaccurate way to deny a records request. I have requested a written confirmation of that statement and have not yet received it. More on that in a moment.
Why Worry About Payroll Records?
How much money public employees are paid with public money can tell a lot about a public agency.
This past summer, al.com undertook two separate investigations: the prison system and the state trooper detail for Governor Bentley. In each of those investigations, it was determined that differences in overtime pay was reflective of either special treatment or special problems within that prison. The payroll records provided an important piece of information that uncovered some of the dysfunctions within the public agency.
Having lived in Hoover my entire life, I have heard rumors of administrators earning bonuses and stipends, certain employees earning overtime pay where others are not allowed to work overtime, and uneven application of supplements for many years. No one was ever willing to go on the record, and no documents were ever shared with me to substantiate those rumors.
Beginning in July 2013, all things financial became of paramount importance in Hoover City Schools.
You may recall that Hoover superintendent Andy Craig (now headed to become the Number 2 (or 3) Guy at the Alabama State Department of Education) had blamed the need to eliminate school buses for half of Hoover’s students on a financial crisis.
In an all-out effort to save those buses and find somewhere else to save the $2.5 million Craig said had evaporated, a number of us pored through hundreds of already-publicly-available financial records to determine where else cuts might be made.
Personnel, being more than 85% of yearly costs, was the natural first place to look. And having heard rumors for years, it made sense to look into whether any part of the rumor was true.
But it’s hard to look into whether or not a rumor is true when you have nothing to look at.
Until the payroll records are provided, we must all assume that the rumors are not true.
So if payroll records are public records, how is Hoover City Schools able to withhold these documents? Because the law is structured to favor the public agency and require a tremendous burden of the person requesting the public records.
Problem #1: There Is No Time Limit to Produce Public Records in Alabama
Alabama is one of only 15 states that sets no time limit for a response to a public records request. It is one of only seven states that does not even require a response from a public agency within a “reasonable” amount of time.
The Alabama Open Records Act requires only that the document be produced, a fact not lost on Gaston, apparent in this email to a Hoover City Schools employee, forwarded to me in response to my request for immediate production of the personnel report in May 2010 where the Hoover Board of Education had reportedly fired/non-renewed/released more than 50 employees:
“Mr. Sweeney” refers to Donald Sweeney, the ubiquitous board of education attorney retained by the Hoover Board of Education. And, to be clear, the personnel report wasn’t requested under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which is the federal open records law. Requests for state records are governed by the Alabama Open Records Act.
This past August, The Anniston Star published an overview of the bigger problem in obtaining any public records in Alabama. The Star utilized information in this report from the Better Government Association and the National Freedom of Information Coalition, giving Alabama zero out of 16 points in the strength and applicability of our Open Records law.
Earning an F in all things public is apparently a place Alabama feels comfortable.
Problem #2: “The Document Doesn’t Exist in That Form” Is Overused and Inaccurate
One of the reasons Gaston has most used through the years to withhold public records is that “the document doesn’t exist in that form”. That’s what he informally told me on December 19 after a board of education called meeting.
Gaston incorrectly assumed that I requested the information in a particular form. I didn’t. Re-read the request.
It is true that a 2007 Attorney General’s (AG) opinion stated that a public agency doesn’t have to freely produce a record or report in the format requested. That AG opinion was built upon previous opinions dating back to 1988.
However, just because a report doesn’t currently exist in the format requested doesn’t mean that the records don’t have to be made available for inspection. From that 1988 AG opinion:
It is not your (the public agency’s) responsibility or duty to provide the information to them (the requestor) in a particular form nor must you necessarily compile or assimilate the information for the public. Your responsibility is to provide reasonable access to the information and for the information to be a reasonable form (e.g. legible copies if possible or in regular language rather than a code form a person outside the office would not be familiar with).
So even if the “document doesn’t exist” in a particular form, that does not relieve Gaston of the requirement to produce all of the supporting documents that include the information requested.
This 1992 AG opinion clearly states that public records must be made accessible to the public when requested, and that “restrictions must not be such as to dissuade or prevent a citizen from having access to such documents”.
And when you add that “all financial documents, in whatever source maintained, are public documents, and shall be open to inspection and accessible to the public,” it’s pretty hard to figure out how, even in the absence of a physical document that already exists, Gaston continues to withhold the payroll records of Hoover City School employees from the public.
See, the documents are clearly available. In fact, there’s a whole department full of people who deal with payroll records.
Problem #3: A Lawsuit Is the Only Appeals Process
The only way to force a response to a public records request is to file a lawsuit in the local courthouse. That costs money up front that most citizens don’t have…and even if citizens do have it, it’s not likely they’re going to want to spend it to file a lawsuit against their local school district.
The media has been incredibly reluctant to file public records lawsuits against public agencies in Alabama. The only lawsuit that I know of in recent history was filed in April 2013 by Alabama Media Group to obtain records related to the death of a child at the Birmingham Airport.
There is always the possibility of the school district paying your attorney’s fees, but when you consider that that is money that comes out of local classrooms and away from local students, the lawsuit doesn’t seem like a good alternative.
It’s as if public information officers count on our good nature to not want the children to lose out just because they refuse to follow the law and produce the public record.
With that said, back in 2008, I did file a public records lawsuit against Hoover City Schools. I requested emails that I suspected would reveal that the board was deliberating via email. It was a time-sensitive manner, having to do with the hiring of Hoover High’s principal. After four months of waiting, I filed suit.
It was settled four months later, with Hoover’s Board of Education turning over a hundred or so emails and paying my attorney’s fees.
While Gaston was quoted as saying that settlement costs were around $4,800, that did not include the cost of Hoover’s attorney, Donald Sweeney, to participate in the negotiations and paper-filing.
It likely cost Hoover’s taxpayers much more than $4,800.
Who enjoys taking $10,000 or more out of the classroom to sue school officials for not following the law? Certainly not me.
Problem #4: No One Invokes Available Statutory Penalties for Withholding Public Records
If the lawsuit is settled and the records are produced, those costs are picked up by the collective local school district. There is no personal accountability for the school officials who make the decision to withhold the public records.
However, there does appear to be a criminal penalty that could be invoked, as withholding public documents (a.k.a., tampering with governmental records) is a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in prison and $6,000 in fines.
Tampering with governmental records.
(a) A person commits the crime of tampering with governmental records if:
(1) He knowingly makes a false entry in or falsely alters any governmental record; or
(2) Knowing he lacks the authority to do so, he intentionally destroys, mutilates, conceals, removes or otherwise substantially impairs the verity or availability of any governmental record; or
(3) Knowing he lacks the authority to retain a governmental record he refuses to deliver up the record in his possession upon proper request of a person lawfully entitled to receive such record for examination or other purposes. (emphasis added)
(b) Tampering with governmental records is a Class A misdemeanor.
It is unclear how to have that penalty invoked against school officials for withholding public records.
Might be a subject worth researching a little more.
But for now, I guess I’ll wait a little longer for those payroll records.
One more thing: I submitted a data request to the Alabama State Department of Education on December 28, 2014, via their online request form, for payroll records for all public school employees. I’ll keep you posted on how that turns out.
Here are all of the emails that have been sent back and forth about this request. They may be a little tough to follow, as I have published them just as I received them, which sometimes includes the email to which we are responding.
If you want to just read the timeline of how this all unfolded, click this link to start on page 24.
NOTE: Hoover City Schools Public Relations Director and Public Information Officer Jason Gaston was asked for a statement regarding the length of time it has taken to produce these records, and told that his statement would be included in this article. Gaston did not respond to that request.
Databases of Public School Employees Available Here and Elsewhere
Some state legislatures and state departments of education are leading the way in producing payroll records for review by the public they serve.
The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction produces a full database, in spreadsheet form, of all 170,000 public school employees, including fringe benefits (scroll to the bottom of the page). They have done so every year since 1994. The information freely shared includes the total number of years experience as well as the number of years of local experience.
Illinois law requires school districts to publish total compensation reports for all employees, which includes supplements, stipends, bonuses, overtime, and all benefits on their district web sites. Vacation days and sick days must be posted as well. Here’s what one of those reports looks like.
Local school districts are also publishing their employees’ salaries, including Albuquerque Public Schools.
Ohio’s teacher and education employee pay is provided by their state treasurer’s office here.
In other areas, the media has taken the lead, recognizing the important role they serve in providing accountability and oversight for public agencies, including public schools.
In 2011, the Tuscaloosa News produced a searchable database of Tuscaloosa City and Tuscaloosa County public school employee salaries for those paid $50,000 or more.
The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit media organization, produces databases of government employees, but limits it only to salary information.
OpenPA.gov produces a database of public school employee salaries, and even allows you to build your own table.
Minnesota Public School salaries are available here, from TwinCities.com.
Washington State public school salaries are available here, from KnowSpokane.
New York’s educator pay database is here, provided by the Democrat & Chronicle.
The Illinois educator pay database is compiled and provided by the Family Taxpayers Foundation.
Oklahoma’s educator pay database is published by TulsaWorld.
Updated December 29, 2014, 10:25 p.m. to correct grammatical errors – sorry…..