Not So Open Records

In collaboration with the Green Advisor program at Swarthmore College, the Nether Providence EAC has been looking into reducing the amount of waste produced by local schools. Our program has reached out repeatedly to the school district to work with them, but generally received silence in reply. A few teachers have expressed interest, but because teachers are already so overworked and have little knowledge of or influence over the district’s facility operations, they’ve been unable to provide much support. We did get help from Kitchen Harvest, which operates the composting program at Linvilla, J+K – the hauling service that Kitchen Harvest works with for other schools, and The Nutrition Group, which operates the district’s food service programs.

But the school district has not been forthcoming, so on Nov. 23rd I filed a pair of open record requests. One request was for information about the district’s waste contracts and another for its electricity contracts, as that’s another area that the township’s been able to make progress on since they passed their Climate Change Action Plan.

On Dec. 2nd, the district sent me the usual reply that they couldn’t reply within the 5 days required and needed the usual 30 day extension, assuring me I would get a reply on Jan. 1st. I waited until Jan. 11th and followed up saying I had gotten no reply. I got another reply from the district blaming the snow day for the delay, although its not clear how two snow days after the 30 day window was up could have caused the delay. I was assured I would get a reply within 48 hours.

On Jan. 19th I emailed the school board notifying them that the district had violated the state’s open record laws. That finally got a reply. I was told that the documents were only available in print form and copies would cost $59.75 (for the electricity information) and $6.25 (for the waste information). I had a check delivered to them in a day or two. On Jan. 27th I got confirmation that the district had received the checks and I let them know I’d be by the following week to pick them up.

I showed up on Feb. 1st and was told they were not expecting me, had not printed them, and that it would take hours. I said I would return the following day, and then I did receive a pile of documents. The waste documents were what I’d hoped for. There is no contract as far as I can tell (so the district either failed to comply with the request or has no contract for waste and recycling services), but it does have the amount of waste and recycling picked up by Republic – the hauler that collects waste from the district. You can look through those documents here. It took me less than 5 minutes to scan these documents. The district’s claim they were only physically available was a waste of time, money and paper.

The reply to the electricity request was more problematic. Half of the documents were the general gas and electricity tariffs from the state PUC – the electricity one is available here and the gas tariff is here. There were several problems with this. First off, the documents they printed for me were issued after the date of my request. The district could not possibly have had in its possession on Nov. 23rd documents that weren’t even produced until December. Second, the district did not have this on paper, they printed it from an online source, so their claim that it was only available in print is also fictitious. And third, this wasn’t responsive to the request. I was looking for the district’s electricity contract. That’s the district’s contract with their electricity supplier (Constellation), not the agreement with PECO regarding electricity transmission (which is what this is). The other half of the documents they produced are copies of their electricity bills. Which is what I wanted, but again, these are documents that the district clearly has access to electronic copies of. I can only conclude that the district’s assertion that I have to pay almost $60 for these documents was meant to deter me from making this request.

I have now filed an appeal with the state’s office of open records, and that process could take until April apparently. At this point, I’ve given up hope of resolving this before we finish the academic year. But we’re continuing to work on ideas for composting at the schools.

I have made open records requests like this before. I regularly request information from police Chief Splain and township manager Dave Grady and as long as its nothing strange, they’ll help out without need for a formal request – often the same day. I’ve made requests from WSSD before (from the prior administration) and I found the staff helpful. Although it did take 30 days usually for them to reply, they provided feedback to make sure I got what I was looking for, which I appreciated. This feedback has been helpful in improving future requests. Unfortunately, WSSD’s current system is no longer that helpful.

Categories: Government, WSSD