Cobb County School District emails should be available to the public except in narrow circumstances

Larry Johnson, the editor and publisher of the Cobb County Courier seated in an office chair in front of a small table with a laptop in article about Cobb County Courier Meet the Editor

This From the Editor opinion piece started as a Twitter rant.

I was reflecting early this morning on the outrageous cost estimates the Cobb County School District presents to the Courier and members of the public when we request emails from Cobb County Board of Education members and district administration sent and received from official district accounts.

If you want to read the original form, here’s a link to the Twitter thread:

This article covers some of the same ground.

The cost estimates presented to the Courier for blocks of emails, even when we’ve provided a keyword to narrow the search, typically fall between $5000-$7000.

This is not a reasonable cost. It’s an attempt to obstruct transparency.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution might be able to occasionally spring for a $7,000 bill for open records compliance, but neither small organizations like the @CobbCourier nor parents in the district can afford that. I suspect it would be a stretch even for the Marietta Daily Journal, which is larger than the Courier, but smaller than the AJC.

The Cobb County School District is constantly roiled by controversy, with charges of racism and criticisms of their COVID policies (and lately their transparency in reporting their COVID numbers).

The public has the right to the utmost transparency about what the school board and administration are communicating to each other when using official email accounts.

This is both the letter and the spirit of the Open Records Act, which was shepherded through the legislature in its current form by former Attorney General and former Cobb BOC Chair Sam Olens.

The justification for the high cost estimates for school board and administration can be summed up by this passage from the Green Book: A Citizen’s Guide to Accessing School Records:

Federal law regarding confidentiality of student records is found primarily in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, more commonly known as either as “FERPA” or the “Buckley Amendment.” Some school systems and advocates have argued to keep all school records confidential, primarily basing their arguments on FERPA. Others are concerned that the privacy protection of FERPA has been interpreted much too broadly, extending well beyond the bounds that Congress intended at the time of passage. It must be recognized that there are valid and legitimate concerns for keeping some student specific education records private. However, there are equally valid policy reasons and legal requirements that mandate that certain school records, especially those containing school or system-wide aggregate statistics and data, must be open and available for public inspection.

I have absolutely no problem with keeping student names confidential, nor of avoiding compromise of personal information of staff. The other exclusions (negotiations on district property purchases, legal or disciplinary proceedings) have justification in narrow circumstances also.

But if you do a web search on “redaction software,” you’ll find that the technology has come a long way since redaction involved a clerk with a marking pen crossing names out of a paper document.

Government transparency is important enough that the open records compliance office within the school district can be provided with the technology, and the additional staff if necessary, to make the proceedings of the district transparent.

Even a $100 charge would have a chilling effect on the ability of the public to know what its school district is doing.

The very first time I was presented with one of these bills was in 2017 when a school board member distributed a racist chain email that was widely debunked as misinformation, even by the newspaper that was cited in the email.

School board Chairman David Chastain wrote at that time to an immigrants rights group, “Based on the information provided in your communication, it appears that Mr. Banks was distributing a forwarded email message to a personal distribution list, using his personal email account.  It appears he may have been acting in his role as a citizen, not as a representative of the Cobb County School Board.”

To determine whether it was limited to Banks’ personal email account I requested emails from him on his official district account to the other board members and was presented with a bill of over $5,000.

There are ways I could have narrowed the request, but even bringing the quote down to 10 percent would have still been $500, too much to pay for transparency that the school district should be practicing anyhow, as a routine matter.

Government transparency matters, and there is a major hole to fill in open records compliance. School districts should not be able to obstruct public access to information by making it unaffordable.