Nebraska senator calls $21,000 price on school gender documents ‘ridiculous’

By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog

LINCOLN, Neb. – Lincoln Sen. Bill Avery said it’s “ridiculous” the Lincoln Public School district said it would cost $21,000 to retrieve all public documents related to its controversial gender sensitivity training.

DEFENDER OF DOCUMENTS: Sen. Bill Avery said Lincoln schools aren’t following the intent of the open records law he got passed last session.

The school district has been embroiled in controversy since Oct. 1 when news broke that middle school teachers were advised not to call students “boys and girls,” but instead less gender-specific terms like campers, scholars or class mascots like purple penguins.

Nebraska Watchdog asked for all public documents held by LPS administrative employees and school board members pertaining to the gender training, as well as all LPS policies, guidelines and training materials on gender inclusiveness. LPS responded by saying that would cost over $21,000.

Avery, a staunch defender of open records and transparency in government, got a bill passed last session to stop government entities from charging exorbitant prices for public records. His bill was designed to end the practice of charging hundreds or thousands of dollars for public records — sometimes in an attempt to dissuade the requester from getting them.

When told of the prices LPS projected for public documents, Avery said, “Tell them they should read the law. You cannot charge $21,000 for public records. That’s ridiculous.”

Asked for a detailed estimate, LPS said it would cost:
• $360 to retrieve all LPS emails related to the training, plus $405 to redact confidential information in them. LPS said it would have to search over 765 employee emails.
• $360 to retrieve all emails between LPS district office employees and the school board on the issue, plus $810 to redact confidential information.
• $135 for all written records pertaining to the gender training at Irving, plus another $135 to redact it.
• $17,888 to retrieve all written and electronic records of district office employees and board members, plus $810 to redact information.

LPS estimated it would take 530 hours to get all records of district office and school board members on the gender training. Watchdog’s records request was narrowed repeatedly until it only sought emails between LPS administrators and board members, at a cost of $275. Those emails were the subject of a Tuesday story.

Lincoln attorney J.L. Spray also requested any document Superintendent Steve Joel sent or received using the words transgender, gender inclusive, gender inclusiveness, gender neutrality, equity liaison or LGBT. LPS projected his documents would cost $888. In the end, they only cost $240.

Avery’s new law bans government entities from charging anything for the first four hours of gathering documents, or charging an attorney’s time to comb through the documents looking for confidential information to redact. LPS didn’t charge for the first four hours, but charged $33.75 per hour to redact information. Staff members said an attorney wasn’t doing the work, but an employee would consult with legal counsel to ensure their redactions were legal.

“They are not abiding by the intent of the law and the spirit of the law, they are simply playing games,” Avery said. “This is the kind of stuff that infuriates lawmakers. They know what the intent is, but deliberately mislead. They hire expensive lawyers and pour over documents… and look for things to hang their hat on.”

He said the city of Lincoln did something similar recently, despite his best efforts last session. His bill was softened after it ran into opposition from rural county assessors.

“Everybody knew what we were trying to achieve,” Avery said. “A lot of public entities were saying ‘We don’t want the public to have access to this stuff.’ These are not records that belong to the city, county… they belong to the people.”

Avery is being term-limited out of office, but said if he were returning next session, he’d “go back with another law.”

“They don’t want to comply with the law,” he said of LPS. “They, of all people, ought to be setting an example.”

While some records requests are so broad they would exact huge costs, Avery said that just goes with the territory in government work.

“My argument is you have to tolerate that as a risk,” he said. “For every one of those (there) are a dozen that aren’t. … Every entity has something they’d rather not discuss in press.”

Follow Deena on Twitter at @DeenaNEWatchdog

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Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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