I recently attended an Education Writers conference in Nashville, where many talented reporters shared their tips for covering schools. During one class, a woman from Florida raised her hand and told the panelists that she has struggled getting public records from charter schools in her area. She asked for their advice, and I quickly typed down what they said so I could share it with you. Here’s my rough transcript of that discussion
Woman from Florida: I’ve had trouble getting info from charter schools … Do you have any tips, advice?
Dan Mihalopoulos, Chicago-Sun Times reporter: Some of them are not used to being FOIAed … The best thing you can do is just try to familiarize them gently with what you’re asking for. They don’t have huge staffs. Try to let them know what you want and (ask) how they keep the records … It shouldn’t be that difficult for them, but some of them aren’t used to it.
Liz Bowie, Baltimore Sun reporter: I think there’s an increasing push back from school systems and (other agencies). I think they’re much slower to respond or say, ‘No we’re not going to give you that’ or ‘It’s going to be $10,000’ … In the old days, we would fight like crazy, and they knew we would fight … I think now they’re recognizing there’s not as much money in newsrooms (and not as much money for lawyers) … We need to keep pushing back. We stopped for awhile, and now we’re paying the price.”
Audience member: Know your charter school law.
It was a great discussion on a topic that a lot of reporters struggle with – not just education reporters. What do you do if an agency denies your public records request? Frank LoMonte, a first amendment lawyer with the Student Law Press Association, had this great piece of advice for reporters in another session. If an agency says a record is not public, say, ‘Can you show me in the law where it says that?’
Have you had trouble getting public records from a government agency? Let me know on Twitter @RecordsGeek or by email, email@example.com.
P.S. – If you or someone from your newsroom has an interest in attending an Education Writers Association conference, the next one will be held in Chicago in 2015. I highly recommend it. You can apply for an EWA scholarship to help with the cost of conference fees, travel and lodging.