Senate plan to charge for records search is misguided

It would be a mistake to drive up costs for record searches, making access to records far more difficult.

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Those who go into the field of education are generally dedicated -- and passionate -- about helping students succeed. And that includes those who leave the classroom to become administrators.

That doesn't mean public schools are perfect. Despite the best of intentions, disputes do arise between parents, teachers and administrators over students' education. When that occurs it is important for all involved to know exactly what occurred so the dispute can be settled reasonably,

Unfortunately, in a few cases some parents or student advocates have become a bit overzealous in their battle with a school or school district. Sometimes the amount of records requested by schools is so vast that it chews up an inordinate amount of school employee time. This can be expensive for taxpayers. Spokane Public Schools, for example, contends it spends $70,000 a year working on public records requests.

But the remedy for this problem is not to make it so onerous for the public to request records that those records are effectively sealed. Yet, that is what the a proposal in the state Senate would essentially do.

Senate Bill 6576, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown of Spokane and Rodney Tom, D-Medina, would allow a public school district to charge a "reasonable" fee for finding records and making them available to the public.

Reasonable, however, might not be so reasonable. The proposal allows districts to charge "the actual classified personnel costs required to complete the search, review, redact, and copy of the records."

Now, given that the person seeking the records and the school district would be in an adversarial relationship, it is certainly possible school officials would slow down the search process in an effort to run up the tab.

Charging for filling a request "creates an incentive to be slow and disorganized," said Toby Nixon, a former legislator and member of the Washington Coalition for Open Government.

The public would not be served by SB 6576. The law now allows for school district and all state agencies to recover the costs of copying documents.

If school districts are given this power to charge the public for finding records, other state agencies will also want it.

This would make Washington's Public Records Act, approved by voters in 1972 by landslide (72 percent), a mere shell.

These are the people's records, paid for by tax dollars, and the people should have access to them.

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