D86 debates saving texts for FOIAs

The Hinsdale High School District 86 Board members last week discussed text messages as public records under the state’s Freedom of Information Act and how best to preserve them.

“What’s the most efficient solution that we can have to make sure that everything is compliant (and) protected, and we’re being as responsive as we can and conservative in our practice?” board President Eric Held asked at the Sept. 22 meeting.

Under district policy, electronic communications are among those that must be preserved when they pertain to “the transaction of public business.”

But Held said there is “a gray area” under FOIA, citing texts between district staff members or a staff member and a vendor as examples of unclarity.

“When are those to be considered — going back to that definition — of pertaining to the transaction of public business?” Held posed.

But board member Debbie Levinthal asserted that the criteria for saving texts as public records is already outlined by board policy and that both board members and staff are responsible for adhering to those procedures.

“I don’t really think it’s ambiguous. If it deals with the operations of the school district, it should be retained,” she said. “I think the expectation needs to be set that text messages are not going to be deleted.”

Board member Jeff Waters agreed that the rules are already in place.

“I don’t think we need a policy change,” he said. “This is the law.”

The discussion came in response to criticism from some community members that text messages were omitted from the material provided pursuant to FOIA requests for public records regarding controversial developments last year around the district’s efforts to hire an equity consultant.

“Were text messages responsive to any of these important FOIAs of public concern deleted?” resident Yvonne Mayer asked the board during public comment. “And if so, when? Why? And what are you going to do about it?”

Held said texts have been provided in response to past FOIA requests and floated the idea of purchasing an app to capture texts at a cost of $5,000 to $30,000.

Board member Terri Walker suggested the district buy phones for staff and board members to use exclusively for district business.

Held responded that would come at “a huge cost.”

Held said board committees would take up the matter at their October meeting and provide recommendations for board consideration.

Board member Peggy James asked what should be done in the interim.

“Until then, it’s still an individual’s decision that they’re making based on their knowledge of public records,” he said. “That’s how it’s going to be until we have additional parameters.”

Author Bio

Ken Knutson is associate editor of The Hinsdalean