open sesame

Requesting public records from NYC’s education department? Be prepared to wait… 103 days

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio

The education department is among the least responsive agencies in New York City when it comes to public records requests.

Worse than the Mayor’s Office, the Department of Environmental Protection, the Administration for Children’s Services — and far worse than the NYPD. That’s according to an analysis of a year’s worth of open records requests initially gathered by the Village Voice and subsequently provided to Chalkbeat.

In fact, the Department of Education’s 103-day average response time to public records requests under the state’s Freedom of Information Law makes it the least responsive of more than a dozen city agencies. (The NYPD’s 34-day average response time, by contrast, is three times faster.)

Between April 2015 and April 2016, the education department received 1,071 public records requests. Some were either fulfilled or denied in a matter of days, but nearly half the requests they answered took 60 days or longer to be resolved. Seventeen percent dragged on over six months.

Just over 14 percent had not been resolved, despite having been requested at least a year ago.

Public records are a key mechanism for members of the public, including journalists, to look behind the veil of local government. It is important enough that then-Public Advocate Bill de Blasio released a scathing report in 2013 — the year before he became mayor — blasting the city for its scattershot response to records requests (the education department earned a “D” on an A-F scale).

The Voice requested logs that see what’s happened since, and how responsive nearly two dozen city agencies are to public records requests. They reveal, in large part, that Mayor de Blasio did not act on his own critique. The education department was largely left out of the analysis, though: Eleven months after the Voice inquiry, the department had yet to provide statistics on their responses to records requests.

But officials eventually turned the data over, and it shows the education department is the least responsive agency of the 14 that responded to the Voice. The average response time across those agencies was just over 33 days — three times faster than the education department average. Under the state open records law, agencies are expected to respond to most requests within 25 business days. (The fastest city agency was the Taxi and Limousine Commission, with a nearly four-day average response time.)

Bob Freeman, director of the state Committee on Open Government, has been disappointed with the city’s response to open records requests under de Blasio. “My thought was, ‘Gee things are going to get so much better’ and the reverse has occurred,” said Freeman. “His record regarding FOIL is terribly disappointing.”

When a department responds, that doesn’t mean that records were provided. Agencies sometimes deny requests they are legally bound to fulfill, Freeman said, assuming many requesters simply won’t bother to appeal or fight the city in court. (The education department has faced multiple lawsuits in recent years for “a pattern and practice” of failing to disclose public records.)

Education department spokesman Michael Aciman defended his agency’s response to public records, arguing that it is in compliance with the law and that nearly 86 percent of all requests were closed within one year.

“The DOE employs multiple, complex data systems, and houses hard copy records in over 1,500 schools and dozens of other facilities,” he wrote in an email. “In an agency as large as the [education department], locating, collecting and reviewing records responsive to FOIL requests can pose challenges.”

The number of requests jumped 35 percent between 2013 and 2015, Aciman added, and the city has expanded the office that handles those requests to seven full-time employees up from four in 2014.

But five other agencies received far more requests — and responded more quickly than the Department of Education. The Department of Environmental Protection, for instance, received 14,797 open records requests — nearly 14 times as many as the education department — yet responded 45 days faster on average.

Freeman, of the Committee on Open Government, acknowledged that some requests may be complex and require time to track down, but said that wouldn’t explain an overall pattern of non-responsiveness.

“There’s often no particularly good reason for delaying disclosure,” he said. “Why should it take so long?”

Teens Take Charge

New York City students and podcasters team up to share stories of inequity in schools

PHOTO: Brett Rawson
Teens Take Charge is a student-led organization that hopes to spark change in schools.

If you ask Sherard Stephens, a senior at Hostos-Lincoln Academy of Science in the Bronx, there are two different types of schools in New York City: There are schools where resources are plentiful and students feel challenged academically. But there are dozens of others that barely provide the basics, and those largely cater to black, Hispanic and poor students.

Stephens and other students like him think it’s time to talk about that, which is why they’ve launched Teens Take Charge. The new group, which includes students from almost every borough, wants to give young people a voice when it comes to issues they know well: what goes on in their own schools.

“It’s all about us talking about the fact that we don’t have the resources to reach the same level of success,” he said.

On Friday, Teens Take Charge will host their first event at the Bronx Library Center. Through letters, storytelling and poetry, students will tackle issues such as segregation and standardized testing. They hope their stories, along with student-moderated discussions, will spark change within their schools.

Called “To Whom it Should Concern,” the event will also feature art work and a photo booth, and will be completely led by students. But they’ve had help along the way from Handwritten, an organization that focuses on the art of writing by hand, along with The Bell, a new podcast created by Taylor McGraw and Adrian Uribarri to highlight student voices.

McGraw teaches writing at Achievement First University Prep High School in Brooklyn and Uribarri works in communications. Their podcast, which launched this month, focuses on school segregation in New York City — more than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision that separate schools for black and white students are inherently unequal.

The podcast was inspired by just a few lines in Chief Justice Earl Warren’s opinion in that case, in which he wrote that segregation “generates a feeling of inferiority” for minority students “that may affect their hearts and minds.”

McGraw wanted to explore the impact that segregation has on students by letting them speak for themselves.

“I want to know: How does it make them think about themselves? How does it make them think about society and their place in it? And then, what’s their response to it?” McGraw said. “So many of the other inequities that we talk about and hear about stem from segregation.”

He hopes to share clips from Friday’s event in an upcoming podcast episode.

For more information about To Whom it Should Concern, click here. To listen to the first episode of The Bell or read more about Teens Take Charge, click here.

maybe next year

Senate Republicans kill bill that would have taken broad look at public education in Colorado

Students at Vista PEAK Exploratory in Aurora work on a math assignment. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

A Republican-controlled state Senate committee spiked a bill Wednesday that was meant to spark a broad conversation about the future of Colorado’s public schools.

Some lawmakers hoped House Bill 1287 would help sell voters on raising taxes to better fund the state’s schools. But the Senate State, Military and Veterans Affairs committee voted 3-2 along party lines to kill the legislation, which would have created a series of committees to examine the state’s education laws and make recommendations for changing them.

Republicans objected to the bill because they didn’t want to create more bureaucracy, and they thought it was a ploy to raise taxes.

The bill’s demise was a defeat for a group of the state’s most authoritative lawmakers on education policy. It was one of the top legislative priorities for state Reps. Millie Hamner, a Dillon Democrat, and Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican. Both serve of the state’s budget committee and rallied lawmakers around the bill.

Rankin called the bill the most important of his legislative career.

“I’m bitterly disappointed, although it was expected,” he said. “I certainly don’t intend to give up. We’ve worked for over three years to move this idea forward. We thought we built a bipartisan coalition that was interested and wanted to help. We thought we were making really good progress.”

Hamner also expressed dismay over the bill’s death.

“To die quietly like that in Senate was really, really surprising and disappointing,” Hamner said. “Do we still have a need to establish a vision for the future of our kids? Yes. Apparently we’re going to have to do that without our Senate majority.”

Last-minute amendments brought by state Sen. Kevin Priola, a Henderson Republican, to address Senate GOP leadership’s concerns could not save the bill.

Supporters of the bill said the legislature needed to step in to help rethink Colorado’s education landscape holistically, not with piecemeal legislation. The state’s laws are outdated and clash with 21st century expectations, they said at Wednesday’s hearing.

“Our current collection of policies and laws have failed to keep pace with changes in expectations of our education system,” said Mark Sass, a Broomfield high school teacher and state director of a teacher fellowship program, Teach Plus. “We need a deliberate and collaborative conversation in our state, as to our vision of education.”

State Sen. Owen Hill, a Republican from Colorado Springs, said he supported the goal of the bill. His name was listed as a sponsor when the bill was first introduced. But he said he eventually concluded the bill was the wrong approach.

“I’m not sure this is the solution to get us there,” he said. “It’s time for us to take a bottom up approach. I get nervous about standing up and staffing and financing another government program.”

After the committee hearing, Sass said Republican lawmakers failed to realize their unique role in Colorado shaping statewide education policy. The state’s constitution gives no authority to the governor, the education commissioner or the State Board of Education to create a strategic plan.

“We need someone to drive this conversation,” he said. “If the legislature won’t, who will?”

Priola said in an interview that he had hoped for more time to lobby Senate leadership and members of the committee. Instead, he said he’d try again next year.

“We live in a state with 178 school districts and thousands of schools,” he said. “There can’t be one way of doing things, but there also can’t be 1,000. There has to be some commonality on what we’re doing and what direction we’re heading.”

Rankin was less committed in trying again next year.

“I want to think about,” he said. “I don’t think this elected, term-limited legislature with the background they come from can develop the kind of leadership needed for this movement.”

The death of House Bill 1287 puts another bipartisan piece of legislation on shaky ground.

House Bill 1340, sponsored by state Reps. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, and Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican, would create a committee of lawmakers to study and make changes to the way Colorado funds its schools.

The state House of Representatives was expected to hold its final vote on that bill Wednesday morning. But Democratic leadership pushed the vote by a day.

Some Democrats in the House saw the two bills as a package, while Republicans in the Senate saw them as competing. With partisan rancor flaring in the waning days of the session, House Democrats could return the favor and kill the finance study bill.

Rankin, the House Republican, said he hoped his chamber’s leadership would let the finance study bill move forward. He introduced a similar bill two years ago but was unable to get the bill through the legislative process.

“I think it’s a good idea to take a hard look at school finance. Maybe we can get some dialogue going,” he said, adding that he believes lawmakers still need to think about a strategic plan for its schools.

Hamner, the House Democrat, said she also supported the finance study.

“I think their bill will be just fine,” she said. “Unless the Senate decides to kill it in State Affairs.”