The Washoe County School District’s budgeting woes dominated this week’s education headlines in Northern Nevada, but there’s another district issue the public should be talking about.
The Washoe County School District Board of Trustees on Tuesday quietly adopted policies that may make it less transparent and constrain the public’s ability to hold the district accountable. The trustees rubber-stamped their approval on these changes to the district’s public records policies without consulting key stakeholders.
The policy changes undermine the spirit and intent of the Nevada Public Records Act, because it fails to provide a means of requesting a fee waiver for requests made in the public interest, creates a rigid definition of extraordinary use, and charges exorbitant fees for such requests.
The ACLU of Nevada — along with our coalition partners on transparency issues, the Nevada Press Association and the Nevada Policy Research Institute — pointed out several flaws in the proposed policy.
Our letter to school trustees, penned by our policy director, Holly Welborn, shows “the purpose of Nevada’s public records law is to ‘foster democratic principles’ by making records open to the public.”
But exorbitant fees attached to records requests discourage members of the public, as well as public-interest nonprofits like ours, from making records requests. Good public records policies distinguish between requests that are part of a for-profit venture and requests made for the public good. The new policies make no such distinctions and do not specify any processes for requesting a fee waiver.
Washoe’s school trustees also added a fee for “extraordinary use,” which the agency arbitrarily defined as any request that takes more than two hours.
Our long-held position, with guidance from Nevada case law, is that “extraordinary use” is an entity-by-entity, request-by-request analysis that cannot be defined by rigid time limits. A request requiring “extraordinary use of personnel and technological resources” depends on many factors, including the mechanisms available to fulfill the request, the number of staff available to fulfill the request, the willingness of the requester to work with the agency to simplify the request.
The “extraordinary use” fee also fails to address electronic records. The policy conflates providing a “copy” with providing the record itself. In defining “extraordinary use,” the new policy discusses reviewing, redacting and extracting information. But those actions have nothing to do with providing a digital copy, and state law doesn’t provide a fee there for reviewing, redacting and extracting.
We advised the Washoe trustees to remove the two-hour threshold and instead create a policy that opens the lines of communication between the requester and the governmental entity. In today’s digital world, sound policies must clarify whether any fees apply to electronic records.
Nevadans have a right to know what our government agencies are up to. We have a right to request records and hold our government accountable.
A 2019 Silver State Sunshine Act could be the vehicle for change Nevada needs. We’ll keep fighting for 21st Century public records policies and increased transparency, and we hope you’ll join us.