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Schools slow to release records; Expert suggests it may violate law

The Buffalo Public School District consistently fails to comply with the state's Freedom of Information Law when responding to Buffalo News requests for public records, according to the state's leading authority on open government.

A prime example of that, he said, is the News' most recent request, which seeks a copy of each non-union administrator's resume.

A district spokeswoman acknowledged that those resumes were available the day after the News requested them. But the district was willing to release copies only if it could dictate the conditions surrounding the information release -- something state law does not allow the district to do.

"The key aspect is that their resumes could have been made available instantly," said Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the state's Committee on Open Government. "It's a good example of an unnecessary delay in disclosure."

The school district's attorney, Brendan P. Kelleher, said the district acts within the law.

"The district has and will continue to comply with its obligations under the Freedom of Information Law," Kelleher wrote in an e-mail. "The opinions upon which the News relies to suggest otherwise are by their own admission merely advisory, and have no legal authority."

Freeman disagreed, saying the district is clearly not in compliance with the law.

Since May, the News has submitted nine Freedom of Information Law requests to the district. All but one sought copies of records that were readily available, such as recent cell phone bills, current building leases, and exempt employee contracts.

Regardless of what the News sought in any particular request, though, the district responded it would take up to 20 business days to "research the request."

That runs contrary to the state's Freedom of Information Law, according to Freeman.

"If records are clearly public and easy to find, there is no valid reason for delaying disclosure," he said.

Once a government agency receives a written request for public information, it has five business days to respond, according to the state law.

A government agency, such as the Buffalo Public Schools, has three options within those five days: make the requested record available; deny the request; or acknowlege the request and provide "a statement of the approximate date, which shall be reasonable under the circumstances of the request, when such request will be granted or denied," the law states.

Over the past 10 months, The Buffalo News has received the same response to each of its Freedom of Information Law requests to the district, regardless of the specific information requested.

It is a two-sentence response: "I am in receipt of your request for records under the New York State Freedom of Information Law. I am researching your request and will be in contact with you, on or before 20 business days from the date of this letter, to discuss any schedule concerns or clarification that might be required, or to provide the records you have requested."

Freeman takes issue with that.

"When records are clearly public and easy to locate, taking as long as 20 additional business days represents a failure to comply with the law," he said.

The state's law, he said, "is not intended to give agencies first, five business days, and then 20 additional business days in every circumstance in which a request is made. A boilerplate response to that effect is clearly inconsistent with the law."

Margaret Sullivan, editor of The Buffalo News, called on the district to provide information more promptly.

"We object in the strongest terms to this failure by the [Superintendent James] Williams administration to comply with state law," she said. "These unnecessary delays deprive the public of its right to know what's going on in the taxpayer-funded city schools."

Last Tuesday, the News requested a copy of each exempt employee's resume. There are 28 such non-union employees in the district.

Later that day, the district sent back its boilerplate response indicating it would research the request and respond within 20 business days.

The next day, Elena Cala, the district's spokesperson, called the reporter who filed the request, asking her to come to City Hall in less than four hours. Cala said the exempt employees would be made available for group interviews, with their resumes in hand.

The reporter said she would need to get the resumes in advance, to have time to do adequate research and prepare appropriate questions. She suggested the district provide the resumes Thursday or Friday and then set up interviews for Monday.

Cala said she would try to arrange that and would call back later that day.

She did not call back. The next day, on Thursday, the reporter inquired by e-mail as to whether Cala would e-mail or fax the resumes later that day. Through a series of e-mail exchanges that day, Cala made it clear that the district would make the resumes available only if that were done as part of group interviews in which the reporter were handed the resumes on the spot.

"I did not say you could come and get the resumes; I said [Deputy Superintendent Folasade] Oladele would pull together a group of people and their resumes if you wanted to come in and meet," Cala wrote in an e-mail last week.

"I understood your request for the resumes ahead of time as a matter of convenience for you, however, there was no agreement to that. The offer is for you to come in for a meeting with exempt employees on Monday and collect their resumes then."

The reporter noted in an e-mail that the resumes were clearly ready to be released.

When the reporter persisted, Cala sent back a five-word response: "Your FOIL is being processed."

e-mail: mpasciak@buffnews.com

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