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High school charges student reporter $8,806 for public information

Dec 3, 2015

Credit Vincent Duffy / Michigan Radio

Chris Robbins just wants to figure out why teachers and students aren't allowed to use Pinterest, and other websites blocked by the Plymouth-Canton school district.

So the Salem High School senior and student newspaper reporter sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the district, asking for emails in which some 85 teachers and staff appealed the blocked websites.

In response, administrators sent him a bill: it would cost $7,917.15 to provide Robbins with that information.

"I had no idea, I mean, I was shocked. I'm a student here, I don't work outside of school," says Robbins. "So I was surprised that they would charge a student for this information, especially. And it should be information that's open to the public to begin with."

When Robbins appealed the charge to the Superintendent of Schools, Michael Meissen, he got a revised estimate from the district: now it would cost $8,806.

The high cost of public information – even just teachers’ emails  

District officials estimated it would take 176 hours to fulfill Robbins’ original FOIA request, at an hourly salary rate of $49.95 an hour. The vast majority of those hours, they say, would be devoted to sorting through the faculty and staff emails.   

“We respect this student enough that we treated it like any FOIA request,” says Nick Brandon, communications director for the Plymouth-Canton School District. “Once it’s made and elements of it are analyzed, we respond with a good faith estimate. It’s based on previous experiences.”

Brandon says they upped the estimate after correcting the hourly rate that FOIA guidelines require the district to use as a benchmark.  

So Robbins, the student, asked for advice from a few more seasoned professionals, from law professors to the Michigan Coalition of Open Government and others.  

“We heard they were charging him $8,000, and that was certainly the largest bill I’ve heard from a high school journalist,” says Jeremy Steele, Director of the Michigan Interscholastic Press Association.

“The cynical journalist in me says, that seems a little bit high. At the same time, I think the initial request was probably broader than it needed to be. And if [the district] had to search through emails of 80 plus teachers, I could see where it would be a particularly onerous thing for the district to do,” Steele says.

Leola Gee, the student newspaper faculty advisor and an English teacher, says she got a call from the district asking her to “tone down” the FOIA request.

“And I did have a visit from the tech department to try to get me to get the kids to back off a little bit, and that’s the reason they gave, [that getting the emails would be time intensive.]”

But she says other experts they’ve talked to think the $8,806 charge seems fishy.

“I ran this by a number of people who work in technology, and they laughed at the idea that it would take that amount of time to track down emails from 85 teachers.”

A revised request, and some of the documents – free of charge

Both Steele and the district advised Robbins to narrow his information request. Rather than ask for the teachers emails on the subject, he limited his request to district policies and discussions on the website-blocking issue.  

“I got an offer, from Nick Brandon, the director of communications [of the school district] that allowed me to amend my request to exclude the staff emails,” says Robbins. “And they would send me the rest of the information free of charge.”

Brandon says the district’s main goal was always to provide students with the information they were seeking, in a way that wouldn’t require so much time on the district’s part. “We contacted the faculty advisor [on the student newspaper] and told her: there’s a huge chunk of this request that demands a lot of time, and therefore there is going to be a fee,” says Brandon. “And if that was omitted, we’d be able to do it free of charge.” 

Robbins and his fellow student newspaper staffers are currently going through the documents they received from their amended information request. The student paper plans to publish a story later this month about how the district blocks websites.

So after all, does the high school senior plan to stick with journalism?

Maybe.

“Uh, I’ve definitely thought about,” Robbins says. “I mean obviously, I still have a little bit of time to make my decision. But it’s an option, and I’ve thought about it, for sure. Yeah.”