Coronavirus and schools: How to get public records

Courtesy photo

Courtesy photo

Georgia school districts are required to report COVID-19 case data each week to the state Department of Public Health. Some districts also post case data on their websites, but the district posting methods vary. For parents, teachers and others wanting and requesting more information from their districts or state records, Frank LoMonte, former Georgia resident and now director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, offers best practices for getting a successful response:

First, remember that the Open Records Act is about just that — records — and not “answers to questions.” You can’t assign an agency to do your homework. You can only insist on seeing documents that the agency actually already has. “Tell me how many people are calling the agency every day to ask about coronavirus” is less likely to succeed than “produce any logs of phone calls to the agency that specify, by subject, why the caller is calling.”

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Second, provide the “Goldilocks” level of detail: Not too much, not too little. If you know the range of dates you’re interested in (let’s say, only documents generated since the first of the month), include that qualifier. It’ll produce a faster result than asking for “all” documents. But also be careful about being too specific — don’t ask for “the September 21 report” unless you’re absolutely sure it wasn’t dated the 22nd.

Third, be an assertive consumer. If your request is denied, you are legally entitled to an explanation — not just “it’s our policy not to give out that information,” but an actual exemption in the Open Records Act that entitles the agency to refuse. And the same goes for any costs you are asked to pay: If the bill looks suspiciously high (more than a few dollars), ask for an itemized breakdown of the fee, as Georgia law limits what agencies can charge (10 cents per page copied, plus “reasonable” fees for time spent searching).

Finally, consider a formal Open Records Act request to be a last resort, not a first try. Unless a written document is absolutely necessary, a phone call is often the shortest distance between two points. A written request may end up at the rear of a long agency backlog (and those backlogs have gotten even worse in the work-from-home coronavirus world). You wouldn’t use a jackhammer to open a sticky door, so don’t use a written request where a phone call will do.

Additional resources provided by the Georgia First Amendment Foundation

Step 1: How to ask for public information:

Step 2: File a complaint with the Georgia Attorney General Office’s Open Government Mediation Program.

Also: The insights of Foundation board member and Cobb County Commissioner Lisa Cupid, who writes that “Georgia’s Open Records Act and Open Meetings Act are long and complex.” How to get the public information you want: Guidance from an elected official