Louisiana’s top educator filed an unusual lawsuit against a citizen, for requesting public records sufficient to give oversight to one of the largest government agencies in his state.
James Finney, is a mathematician from Baton Rouge, and he likes to work with numbers.
He’s requesting the records he needs to review the statewide Louisiana Department of Education for compliance and performance.
Finney said in a telephone interview with PINAC, that he’s prepared to continue his fight to see the records and is confident that the court will find in his favor.
He likes to keep an eye on Louisiana’s education system, and Finney uses statistical reports produced yearly by Louisiana’s Department of Education.
Recently though, the detailed statistics the department normally produced were replaced with a more general overview of the student demographic information and test scores, leaving Louisiana taxpayers with an incomplete picture of student results.
So, Finney made a series of public records requests in recent years.
Louisiana Department of Education superintendent John White, is the custodian of those public records.
White failed to provide Finney with all of the records he requested, and then communication between the two broke down.
Finney filed suit.
Missing from the records John White turned over were key statistical distributions of tests scores which would verify that School and District Performance Scores were fairly and accurately calculated.
Then Superintendent White took the unusual step of filing his own lawsuit against Finney claiming that no records exist that would be responsive to the request or that finding the records would be too burdensome.
Superintendent White also claims that students privacy may be compromised under FERPA by giving out the requested information even though Finney didn’t ask for any identifying information.
White is also suing Michael Deshotels in a third lawsuit that includes Finney.
Deshotels is from Zachary, La. and is also an avid public records requester, who has also filed suit against Superintendent White for public records.
Meanwhile, James Finney reached out to the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education by email to ask for their help in resolving the matter. The board oversees and directs the Superintendent. Finney wrote:
…I have repeatedly requested meetings with Mr. White and/or his staff to work out arrangements that allow the public to have access to important public records without compromising student privacy nor causing the Department undue burden. I have consistently been rebuffed. And now we’re tangled in litigation in three different divisions of the local district court.Most of my requests to date, and all that are subject to litigation thus far, could be collected into the following six categories. I trust you would consider these all to be important and of potential public interest:
- calculation details regarding Value-Added Modeling as performed by the Department
- voucher programs’ exact enrollments and costs, and demographics of voucher students
- test-score distributions and technical reports
- details of School and District Performance Score calculations adequate to verify accuracy and credibility
- charter schools’ enrollments, charters and leases, and other information
- exact enrollment numbers with no more suppression than is absolutely required to protect the anonymity of an individual student..
The Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education has taken no action as Finney awaits his day in court.
John White and the department are not the only public entity suing citizens who ask to view public records.
According to KOMOnews.com, the City of Seattle filed suit against criminal defense attorney James Egan in 2012 after he requested police dash camera video, and is currently tangling with PINAC’s lead national investigator Felipe Hemming over mandatory access to images of their public employees in court today too.
And let’s not forget about the suit the St. John’s School Board filed against PINAC reporter Jeff Gray (Honor Your Oath) who requested school bus pre-trip inspection sheets after watching bus drivers fail to perform the pre-trip inspection.
These strategic lawsuits against citizens have a chilling effect of the rights of people to inspect and copy public records but they are becoming more and more common.
We are witnessing a new low in the playbook of public record denials that custodians rely on to refuse legitimate requests.
The battle of Finney vs. Board of Education is just beginning, but Louisiana’s public records laws do have teeth if elected officials are found to intentionally break them, as one city marshal discovered after getting sentenced to jail for withholding public records.