John Ramos on Duluth School District opacity

John Ramos gave me a mention in his latest Duluth Reader column. This complaint of mine seems not to have changed much.

BTW – I like how John handles the one quibble given him by a reader at the end of the column (in the online version). He answers without defensiveness and in the process makes one point of disputation a little clearer for anyone reading his response.

From his column:

Johnston data request

I previously reported on the Duluth school district’s failure to comply with former School Board Member Art Johnston’s subject data request. A subject data request is a request for information about oneself. On March 2, 2018, Johnston submitted a subject data request to the school district, asking for district emails that mentioned him. By law, school districts and other governmental entities must fulfill subject data requests within 10 days. When I wrote my first article about it about Johnston’s request, on June 28, 116 days had elapsed.

In July, Johnston asked the Minnesota Department of Administration for an opinion on whether the school district was responding appropriately to his data request. On July 30, 148 days after Johnston made his request, Commissioner Matthew Massman issued an opinion stating that the school district was not responding appropriately. Massman’s opinion was advisory only, but it was an opinion that was required to be given “deference” in a court of law.

On Aug. 27, his request still unfulfilled after 176 days, Johnston filed suit against the school district, alleging that the district had engaged in “unlawful and willful” conduct by failing to give him the data he asked for. The suit asked the court to order the school district to supply the requested data; to pay Johnston’s attorney’s fees; and to award Johnston any other damages the court deemed “just, proper, and equitable.”

When I spoke with Johnston on Nov. 12, he said, “After the lawsuit was filed, they started providing the information, and I’ve got all that they’re going to give me now, or all they say they have.” Some correspondence has taken place between attorneys for the school district and Johnston, but the case remains active. A pretrial hearing on the matter is scheduled for Feb. 7, with a jury trial scheduled for Feb. 19.

Data request data request

Curious as to how many data requests the school district really handled, I filed a data request for data requests. I found that, in a three-and-a-half-year period—2015, 2016, 2017, and half of 2018—the school district handled 126 data requests, or an average of 36 per year. The requests ranged from very simple to extremely complicated, involved, and confusing.

I divided the requests into three categories: Business/Research requests, Citizen requests, and Journalist requests. The Business/Research category accounted for nearly half of all requests, at 59. Many of these requests were made by various sectors of the government (such as the county or the state) seeking information for their records—for example, numbers and types of school lunches served, number of children enrolled, and so on. A number of requests were made by university researchers assembling data for studies. Several were made by businesses seeking information for marketing or other purposes.

The Citizen category was next, with 42 requests. This category is lopsided, as a single irate citizen was responsible for a dozen or more of those requests, which he submitted in the form of angry, accusatory rants about the School Board and Superintendent “Billy Gronseth.” The rest were from calmer citizens wondering about teacher salaries, class size numbers, and many other things. The Citizen category also included several data requests made by two School Board members, Art Johnston and Harry Welty. The school administration does not give School Board members information unless they file data requests, and often it does not give them information even then. Think about that for a while.

Reporters made 25 data requests—the Duluth News Tribune and The Reader on the newspaper side, and a variety of local and Twin Cities-based TV stations on a variety of topics. This only amounts to about 7 data requests per year from the media, which indicates that the Duluth school district is severely underreported.

About the author