Atlanta school systems vary widely in giving public information

The city of Atlanta is under a criminal investigation into whether officials deliberately delayed information requested by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News. The revelation about such tactics wasn’t surprising to reporters regularly requesting information from agencies they cover.

The AJC’s education reporters request information from metro Atlanta’s major school districts with regularity, and often find that seeking the same information can result in responses that vary, from how long it will take to compile to how it will be delivered.

“This is not about only the interest of journalists, it’s about the public,” said Jonathan Peters, a media law professor at the University of Georgia. “The public that we all serve with the work we do.”

The Georgia Open Records Act states that public information should be made available “without delay.”

“Agencies shall produce for inspection all records responsive to a request within a reasonable amount of time not to exceed three business days of receipt of a request,” according to the Georgia Open Records Act. “In those instances where some, but not all, records are available within three business days, an agency shall make available within that period those records that can be located and produced.”

In the public education context, Peters said, agencies sometimes cite the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) in denying information. FERPA protects selective student educational records who receive funding under an applicable U.S. Department of Education program.

“For schools this is just a be-all, end-all exemption machine,” he said. “Schools just, in anything they would like to withhold, cite FERPA.”

Peters said open-records laws are not just about serving journalism or journalists, mentioning that corporations, competitive organizations and journalists are among those most often requesting information from public agencies.

“In a democratic society, if we’re going to hold (agencies) accountable, we need access to information about the way they make decisions and exercise that power,” he said.

In December 2016, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution requested “bus crash data” from metro Atlanta’s six main school districts.

The requests were made to compare information received from the Georgia Department of Education, which should receive information from districts after each accident.

Many sent the information, in spreadsheet form, within 24 hours. Others were not as helpful.

Gwinnett County Schools officials said the district kept its data on printed sheets, and charged more than $400 to retrieve it. Charles White, Clayton County Public Schools’ custodian of records, said no responsive record on “bus crash data” existed.

“Please note that School Bus Accident Report data is submitted to the state,” he wrote on Dec. 16, 2016. “Not all accidents are crashes.”

The information was received nearly three weeks later, after a second request seeking “bus accident” data.

School districts spend a lot of time parrying the press, Peters said, using common forms of gamesmanship including delayed record release or high fee estimates for documents requested, as well as redacting some information or denying requests altogether. Documents give insight into many corners of the school district, from how much staffers are paid, to how sexual harassment and other complaints are handled by school systems.

“Some of the games that public officials play seem to have no bounds,” he said.

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Education

DeKalb Schools chief of staff takes new position reporting to school board
DeKalb Schools chief of staff takes new position reporting to school board

Ramona Tyson, chief of staff for the DeKalb County School District, has taken a new job with the district, where she will report to the school board.  The new position, executive administrator, is part of a reorganization plan approved by the DeKalb Board of Education at its meeting on Sept. 10. The reorganization is effective immediately, but...
DeKalb Schools: Technology chief leaving for city of Atlanta
DeKalb Schools: Technology chief leaving for city of Atlanta

Gary Brantley, DeKalb County School District’s chief information officer, is leaving the district after seven years to work for the city of Atlanta in the same capacity. Brantley will begin with the city on Oct. 8. Former DeKalb Schools Chief Operations Officer Joshua Williams left his post to work for the city last month. Brantley, who...
Cyber attacks target some student financial aid
Cyber attacks target some student financial aid

A fake email could rob some college students of federal money.  The U.S. Department of Education’s financial aid office has reported a “malicious phishing campaign” using a phony message to gain access to students’ accounts at several colleges. It does not identify any of the schools affected. The phony message targets...
Kemp unveils school safety plan
Kemp unveils school safety plan

Georgia Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp wants to keep the state’s school children safe by wrapping them in a $90 million security blanket. He did not define a specific source of funding to pay for it. The current secretary of state unveiled a plan today that he called a “three prong” approach. Adding a school counselor...
Congrats to schools and parents on rising high school graduation rate
Congrats to schools and parents on rising high school graduation rate

The climb in Georgia’s high school graduation rate reflects two concomitant actions: Schools are working harder to push kids over the finish line, and parents are realizing their children have no future without at least a high school diploma. The Georgia Department of Education announced today the grad rate rose again in 2018, to 81.6 percent...
More Stories