Jennifer Crossland is trying to decide where to send her daughter to school next year. She wanted to make an informed decision and filed an open records request with the school district for a list of books, by grade, that students read.
The bill for that information was $1,267.90.
Between Aug. 1, 2021, to Sept. 1, 2022, Fort Worth ISD charged people $14,962 for access to 93 different public information requests. While more were filed in that time period, 93 had charges. While charging for open records is legal, some experts argue costs can be too high. Some parents argue they shouldn’t have to pay at all because the information already belongs to the public.
“I think what I asked for should be readily available, and I think it signals a much deeper issue of school districts trying to hide information, basic information,” Crossland said. “They don’t want parents or stakeholders to know anything, and so they hide behind charging people, which I think is unacceptable.”
Government entities are allowed to charge for labor, overhead fees and materials under the Texas Public Information Act.
Here is an example of a request and cost breakdown from the Texas Attorney General.
A governmental body receives a request for copies of the last 12 months’ worth of travel expenditures for employees, including reimbursements and backup documentation. The records are maintained in the governmental body’s main office.
The governmental body determines there are 120 pages, and it will take one and a half hours to locate and compile the requested information, redact confidential information and make copies.
The total allowable charges for this request would be:
Copies, 120 pages @ $.10/page $12.00
Labor, 1.5 hours @ $15.00/hour $22.50
Overhead, $22.50 x .20 $4.50
Total for copies & labor (paper records) $39.00
Costs can vary, and numerous factors contribute to those variances, Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said.
For example, the government can charge $15 an hour in labor if that labor is required to round up the records, she said. If something requires computer programming, that can increase to $20. But if the request is something readily available, the labor charge shouldn’t be necessary.
Kelley Shannon’s commentary on the 50th anniversary of the Texas Public Information Act
Read Shannon’s column here.
For the information requested for this story, the Report paid $180.
It can be a deterrent
“It all really boils down to what’s being requested and the volume of records and the time it takes to put it together,” Shannon said.
In the timeline the Report requested, Fort Worth ISD charged seven requests over $1,000, one of those requests going about $2,000. Other costs widely varied, some costing $6 and others costing hundreds of dollars.
More requests were free than those that carried a charge.
The foundation is seeing higher costs for records requests around the state and not just in school districts, Shannon said.
“In some cases, it’s justified, but many times it’s not,” Shannon said. “Sometimes it is done as a deterrent, because the government is trying to make the requester just back off and not ask for the records.”
Chris Benton, whose children graduated from Fort Worth ISD schools, believes his costs for records are being used as a deterrent.
“Sometimes I think they do it just because it’s me doing it,” Benton said.
In the time the Report requested records, Benton filed nine public information requests with the district with charges totaling $779.35. His cost estimates ranged from $7.50 at the lowest to $172.50 at the highest.
Benton has filed open records requests since before 2015, when he can see his first online filing. Before that, he went to the administration building and filed in person. Doing it that way saved him money because he could look at the records pulled and just get copies of what he wanted, he said.
“I don’t mind paying for copies because that’s money out of their pocket,” Benton said. “But you’re telling me that you’re going to charge me for redacting and all that when that person’s already getting paid to do that?”
Years ago, Benton filed a request for a specific email chain involving former superintendent Kent Scribner regarding the 2017 bond. An attorney with the district called him and asked why he was requesting that email.
Benton shared with the Report an email chain regarding the phone call. The attorney was Alexander Athanason and said the call was about seeking clarification on the request, which is common practice.
Email reply from Alexander Athanason to Chris Benton
Below are the answers to your questions.
1) Is it common practice for you to contact a person who has made an open records request via phone call? Yes. It is common for our department to contact the requestor to seek clarification over requests so as to mitigate unnecessary costs.
2) I don’t believe I have ever listed my cell phone number. How did you obtain it? When you created an account with our online portal, you listed your cell phone as the contact information.
3) Were you instructed by someone in the FWISD to contact me via phone call? No. As stated above, the legal department frequently contacts requestors for clarification on open records requests.
I hope this answers all your questions. Thank you for reaching out. If you have any further questions or concerns please contact me.
According to the Texas Comptroller website, Chapter 552 of the Texas Government Code says “an officer for public information and the officer’s agent may not ask why you want them. All government information is presumed to be available to the public.”
Aside from costs, the process itself can be a deterrent, too. Crossland, who filed the request for book lists, said going through the actual filing, the attorney general communication and trying to understand the law itself is complicated for parents trying to get information.
“I’m not a lawyer. I’m just a mom,” Crossland said. “I’m from the restaurant industry. I don’t know any of these rules.”
The Goldwater Institute stepped in to help Crossland after she tweeted about the cost of her request. The institute helped her with writing to the attorney general to attempt to get the cost lowered. Months later, she’s still waiting for a response.
Meredith Bowman is another parent who filed a request and received a charge over $1,000. In 2022, Bowman requested emails sent between May 27, 2021, and June 10, 2021, along with Oct. 25, 2021, to Nov. 10, 2021. She listed the people she wanted emails from and asked for any related to surveys, specifically panorama surveys.
She was charged $1,230 by the district. District officials are asking the attorney general if they have to release the information. Bowman has yet to receive the information.
What should be available?
Government entities can avoid charging for information — and the labor it takes to gather it — by simply making more information readily available, Shannon said.
“We always urge that as much information as possible be put online so that it can easily be accessed by the public,” Shannon said. “We’re starting to see more and more people interested in textbooks being used in a school. Well, the school district might consider a list for textbooks that are used in various grade levels online so people can see it, rather than having to force open records requests.”
The district should make information more readily available, Bowman said, because it appears the district is hiding something by making people jump through hoops to request it.
Some more basic information about the schools easily available online would be helpful, Crossland said. This could include feeder patterns for the schools or curriculum.
She also wants to see an easier way to file requests in the district.
How to file a public information request in Fort Worth ISD
Anyone may file an open records request in the district. Visit the Public Information Request page on the district website and create an account.
When filing a request, be specific in what information you want and ask for it “Under the Texas Public Information Act” and the format you want it in. Asking for digital copies can save money because there isn’t a need for copies.
Here’s an example: Under the Texas Public Information Act, I am requesting a list of textbooks used at (insert campus) for the 2021-22 school year. I am willing to accept digital copies and, since this is public information, I am asking all charges be waived.
From the day you file your request, the district has 10 business days (so, exclude weekends and holidays) to either release the records, send you a cost estimate or seek an attorney general opinion on the request.
If a requester thinks the district has not abided with open records law in some way, Shannon said they should file a complaint with the Texas Attorney General.
“A government, they have a right to recoup some costs,” Shannon said. “They certainly should not be going overboard and misusing or abusing the cost rule system.”
Kristen Barton is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.