Keeping FOIA portal open a positive step for D86

Public bodies can approach Freedom of Information Act requests one of two ways.

They can release only what the law requires them to release.

Or they can release everything except what the law prohibits them from releasing.

This might seem like mere semantics, but the second approach indicates a public body is focused on real transparency rather than minimal compliance.

Another way to embrace transparency is to make the documents released to one individual accessible to all. We’re pleased Hinsdale High School District 86 Board members voted last month to maintain the district’s FOIA portal. (It is under the “School Board” tab on the main page, by the way, in case you are having trouble finding it.)

We agree with the board members who said posting documents provided for an individual FOIA request for all to see is likely to mean fewer duplicate and triplicate requests.

The district already is receiving plenty of requests, to the tune of about 70 this year — with 40 some processed in March and April alone. Some board members at the April 28 meeting hypothesized that reflects a disturbing lack of trust by community member.

We also have noticed that a few people are filing a significant number of requests. Seventeen of the 30 requests listed on the March and April log were filed by only four people, all of whom are regular critics of the superintendent, some administrators and some board members.

Regardless of who files them, the requests come at a cost — to all taxpayers. So far this fiscal year the district has spent almost $62,000 responding to FOIA requests.

That amount could be reduced if the district stopped posting documents online, as they would require less legal scrutiny, the district attorney told board members last month. But he didn’t say how much the district would save. Nor did he point to any specific instances in which posting documents from FOIA requests online had resulted in a liability to the district.

And if policy committee discussions of FOIA procedures did not include any mentions of eliminating the portal (as stated by two board members and confirmed by the attorney), we too are surprised that such a recommendation was brought to the full board.

To reduce the number and cost of FOIA requests, we have a couple of simple suggestions. The district could post all administrator contracts on its website. These documents are all part of the public record and should not require a formal request to view. Officials also could remind residents in attendance at board meetings or watching the livestream that documents shared at the meeting — such as Patrice Payne’s slideshow — are accessible online.

An even more effective step district officials could take is to work toward more functional board meetings. Cynthia Hanson’s decision to part with her usual allies on the board and vote to maintain the FOIA portal was refreshing.

The less division on the board — and between the board and the administration — the less division there is likely to be in the school community. That’s a goal worth striving toward even if it has no impact on FOIA requests.