Document Requests Made to WCS, By Requestor
I’m all about public records requests. They are a vital part of an open, democratic government. Without open records, governments can hide all kinds of stuff that they shouldn’t.
Here in Williamson Co. Schools, though, we have 2 people who, between them, have requested the lion’s share of the estimated 350,000 documents currently owed to various people from open records requests. They are, curiously, 2 people who do not have children in WCS: Julie West, whose request covers about 250,000 docs, and Beth Lehman, whose request covers about 10,000. (More on their backgrounds below.)
It could be that a non-parent of the WCS has a very legitimate reason for requesting that volume of documents from the school system. Or, it could just be political paranoia. You decide.
Either way, it’s going to cost taxpayers a huge pile of cash to clear these requests. Last week, Dr. Looney announced at the board’s Policy Committee meeting that he would be seeking funds to hire an outside contractor for help in processing the many document requests the WCS has received in the last 6 months or so.
For a visual, imagine a box of copier paper; that holds 10,000 sheets of paper. Now, imagine 35 of those puppies stacked together. Then imagine yourself having to look at every single page. Because that is the task that the legal department faces.
About this many boxes of documents (or a few more) respond to recent document requests.
In my former life as an attorney, I worked on cases that had similar numbers of documents, and far more. It is slow, tedious work. After a quick search for terms that match the request, the next step is a review, document by document, for legal privilege. In litigation, reviewers have a list of attorneys, and some knowledge of what creates legal privilege and what doesn’t. Reviewers can search for specific names, but not for finding context clues that hint at possible privilege.
Schools, in addition to reviewing for legal privilege, also have obligations to keep student identities protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), and also under the health privacy law, HIPPA. West’s request spans more than 4 years, meaning more than 100,000 WCS students; it’s impossible to search for that many names and be done before, oh, 2025. Plus, it’s not just names that are protected by FERPA; it’s any information that might identify an individual student. In other words, finding the documents that contain those references requires document-by-document review.
The industry standard for reviewing documents is about 50 documents per hour. Here’s how that works out in cost.
||Attorney review rate
||Paralegal review rate
|Total hours = 5,200
It could well be that the estimate of total hours needed is on the low side, due to the need to review each document more closely than in a typical litigation. Because paralegals tend to be less experienced and educated in issues like privilege, the hours estimate for them is particularly low, if they can even do the job.
Julie West & Her 250,000 Documents
So let’s take a look at the West and Lehman document requests.
Julie West, a District 12 resident but not a WCS parent, made this request on Sept. 30, 2014:
Dear Mr. Golden:
Because of ongoing targeting of conservative groups, district parents, elected officials and even my family, by some connected with Williamson County Schools, it has become necessary for me to request the opportunity to review a number of emails. Please, understand that I am not requesting copies. At this time, online review will suffice.
The emails should include any WCS email or email@example.com from 2010 to present mentioning:
- Sidney (Ket) West
- Laurie Cordoza (sic) Moore
- Michael Del Gornio (sic)
- Jeremy Durham
- Glenn (sic) &/or Jill Casada
- Carrie (sic) Bartlett
- Jessica Pace
- Fox News
- Parents for Truth in Education
Thank you for your attention and discretion dealing with this important issue. I look forward to receiving your response.
West was a WCS parent for a while, but hasn’t been since 2013. She operates a FB page called Parents for Truth in Education, started in 2012 when she and Laurie Cardoza Moore, and others, began agitating about textbook selection and the horrible threat of Islam indoctrination in social studies books. They managed to get a whole paragraph changed in one AP Human Geography book. In the 3 years the page has operated, it has garnered 315 likes. A true political powerhouse.
So, West is requesting any email sent from a WCS account that mentions Fox News. That’s certainly a focused, reasonable way to discern the alleged conservative “targeting,” isn’t it? I mean, it wouldn’t capture, for example, any email sent by employees that mentions a Fox news story, would it? Oh, wait, it would.
West, though, is convinced that her requested documents will show that Dr. Looney has a vendetta against her and her family. She flatly rejects the idea that the volume of documents requested is what is keeping her request from being fulfilled. And, she has some interesting friends who are egging her on, such as Susan Curlee and Barbara Sturgeon.
The Other Listed Names
Let’s not forget that Jill Casada was a nurse at a WCS elementary school. So just possibly, she might have received a few emails from teachers and administrators inquiring about a student’s health. Doubtless, though, most of those emails would be about the dreaded political targeting West is sure exists.
Now, it is true that Glen Casada and Jeremy Durham are local politicians. I do wonder if they even knew West was so concerned on their behalf? And maybe it’s just me, but they seem like big boys, and I’m sure if they were concerned about being targeted by WCS, they are perfectly capable of requesting their own documents. Unless West is somehow on both their payrolls, which I highly doubt.
Kerri Bartlett and Jessica Page are reporters for the Williamson Herald and BrentwoodHomepage.com. They both write balanced, sourced stories. Not sure how they are part of the targeting conservatives plot.
Incidentally, media requests for records have typically numbered in the 10s up until this year. The only reason the number climbed in 2014 is because the media requested copies of records requests fulfilled for Julie West and Susan Curlee.
Not all media are the same, of course. There are media figures like Michael DelGiorno, who hosts a local radio talk show. I can’t even label him as conservative, because that would be insulting to actual conservatives. He’s more in the “tenuous grip on reality” category; he natters, pretty much daily, about the evil that is Dr. Looney, and how Dr. Looney is wrecking the school system. No, really, I am not making this up. Listen for yourself, if you can stand it.
Notably, West appears on DelGiorno’s show almost daily. And, she and Susan Curlee (they live about half a mile apart) have appeared on the same show to talk about the horrible, catastrophic state of the schools in Wilco—you know, how monstrous it is that the district’s test scores keep getting better, even though that’s really hard to pull off when your district is already at the top. Also, they talk about the unfairness of the election that Susan Curlee won. There’s also a fair bit about Williamson Strong, PTOs, and other people who actually have children in WCS schools. You know the dilettantes that THOSE PEOPLE are.
West often takes advantage of the public comment portion of school board meetings to whinge about how her records request is being ignored, and questions the motives of WCS by not dropping everything to focus on her. Indeed, she is so worried about her precious 250,000 documents that when she heard about the water main break in the server room at WCS, her first move was to call the police, since something nefarious was clearly afoot.
Beth Lehman & Her 10,000 Documents
Beth Lehman is a homeschool parent whose children have never attended public schools. She is one of the administrators, along with Julie West, of the Williamson Co. Homeschool Coalition’s Facebook page. The group’s purpose, according to the page: “We are parents, primarily but not necessarily home educators, concerned about current issues, so that we may be informed and equipped to preserve our God-given and Constitutional freedoms, for the benefit of all children in Williamson County.”
The WCHC endorsed Susan Curlee for the 2014 election, along with a whole slate of candidates, including local celebrity Victoria Jackson:
Strangely, I could not find the group registered as a PAC with the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance. I’m sure Ms. Curlee will get right on filing an ethics violation complaint against them, now that this information has been brought to light.
So, what documents is Lehman after? Her Jan. 2, 2014 request:
Dear Mr. Squires,
This is an open records request.
May I please see emails from May 15, 2014 through December 31, 2014,
from all of the following:
- Mike Looney
- Eric Welch
- Robert (Bobby) Hullett
- The communications department
Containing any one (or more) of the following:
- Williamson Strong
- Islamic Promo
If there are any details to this process please advice [sic]. Thank you very much for your assistance.
Basically, this request duplicates a large portion of the Julie West request, except it is (mercifully) much more limited in time scope—6.5 months, vs. 4 years+. It does add scope by asking for additional current and former board members’ emails, plus those of the Communications Department. After all, that department has almost no responsibility for getting materials to new board members like Curlee and Beth Burgos, or coordinating with them on a myriad of board-related matters.
Many of these records have already been requested and received by Susan Curlee, who has shared them with West. At least, West seems to have a pretty thorough knowledge about several documents, and said on the Michael DelGiorno show that Curlee showed some documents to her.
Lehman, too, seems rather concerned that her precious documents might have been affected by the water main break. Yep, definitely more important than, say, student records, instructional plans, or anything related to actual education of WCS students.
Can’t WCS Just Ignore These and Save the Money Instead?
The sad thing about these document requests is that there is not much WCS can do about them, except fulfill them. One does not need to be a parent of a WCS student to request school documents, but simply a county resident. I can’t say I have a problem with that—often media and other investigators are the ones who uncover government corruption.
But unlike in litigation, where parties can object to overbroad and burdensome requests, and ask that a judge narrow the request, the school district does not have that option when it comes to open records.
WCS attorneys have asked West to narrow her request, so that they can get her documents to review. West has refused.
So at a bare minimum, WCS is going to have to find $130,000 to get these requests cleared. While the legal department has reviewed about 4,000 documents, including 2,000 for Susan Curlee, it is a poor use of the lawyers’ expertise on school law, IEPs, personnel law, and all those things that they handle daily, to review documents.
What could $130,000, or more likely $260,000, be used for? So many things that would impact students and teachers:
- Technology, like smartboards for classrooms, laptops, and tablets;
- Teacher raises;
- New teacher hires;
- Incentives for bus driver hires;
- Individual facility improvements;
- Increased pay for SAAC workers;
- Tutoring services for struggling students;
- Or about a zillion other things that touch students’ lives.
Please, File a Motion
As an armchair litigator, I wish that WCS would file a declaratory judgment motion, asking a judge for relief from these 2 requests. The costs of that motion would be a drop in the bucket compared to actually fulfilling the requests. Yes, it’s a somewhat risky move, and there’s not precedent for it, but maybe it’s time to try to make some. This seems like a pretty egregious abuse of the system, based on what we know. If a judge is inclined to impose some kind of limitation on an open records request, this is probably a great case to try.
West only makes vague accusations of targeting, without providing any proof. I say, if she’s got some, she needs to show it. Paranoia alone should not be the basis for costing a school system hundreds of thousands of dollars. Narrowing the request by removing Fox News, and all parties except West and her family, and limiting the request to the last year, seem like reasonable accommodations. If there has been targeting, documents from such a narrowed search would be highly likely to reveal it.
What do you think?
Comments on this and all other posts are welcome, whether or not you agree with me. I will moderate comments for abusiveness or if they get far off topic. Want to comment to me privately? Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I live Tweet from school board meetings; follow @alveyed for that. Thanks for taking the time to read!