Waters chafes at cost of transparency

Is a school district able to limit the number of Freedom of Information Act requests it processes?

Hinsdale High School District 86 Board member Jeff Waters posed that question at the April 25 board meeting as he expressed concern at the financial and human resources needed to maintain access to information the public is legally entitled to under the Freedom of Information Act.

“What do districts do, if anything, to combat excessive FOIA requests, both from the press and community members?” Waters asked administrators.

As at every regular meeting, the board had just received that month’s FOIA report, stating that there had been 14 requests for information between Feb. 22 and April 16.

Waters asked Deb Kedrowski, the district’s administrative chief of staff who is in charge of processing FOIA requests, for her thoughts on better managing the amount of FOIA requests that “can burden capital in the building” and “can hurt taxpayers in the community, tremendously.” He said the press, in particular, was not being “held accountable” for such requests.

Kedrowski had remarked that she used to include the total associated legal costs in her report but has not done so since the board switched law firms.

“(The cost figure) does not reflect the time of district office staff for processing the FOIA requests and our tech services department and all of our departments in collecting documents,” she replied. “It does not track any of that time.”

In the 2021-22 fiscal year, the district responded to 178 requests at a cost of $96,259.

Interim Superintendent Rebecca Nelson affirmed Waters’ observation.

“Your point is well taken. District 86 does receive a large number of FOIA requests, there’s no question about it,” Nelson said, adding the district could check with its law firm regarding possible legal recourse options. “We have the responsibility for processing them.”

No other board member took up the issue. During public comment at the end of the meeting, resident Linda Burke took issue with Waters

“In a free society, we can’t say we’ve got too many FOIAs,” she said, speculating that the stabilizing force of incoming superintendent Michael Lach may settle people’s need to constantly scrutinize board actions.

Kedrowski defended the public’s right to obtain information.

“FOIA is a wonderful process,” she said, noting the district was rated highly by the Illinois Policy Institute for transparency. “Anything we can do to make information more accessible to our community, I feel like we try to do.

“My cell phone number is known by many people out there. I have answered FOIA requests on Christmas Eve,” she continued. “It’s not perfect process. We are bound by requirements.”

Author Bio

Ken Knutson is associate editor of The Hinsdalean