Several San Dieguito Union High School District parents have been using the California Public Records Act to find out information about how the district conducts its business. At recent school board meetings, parents are speaking out against requests they believe are a misuse of the act, constituting a “fishing expedition.”
At the June 7 board meeting, parent Heather Dugdale questioned how much “time, money and emotional capital has been spent on frivolous email requests.”
“I cannot think of a bigger waste of time, talent or resources than district staff going through hundreds of thousands of emails so someone can look for a needle in a haystack or worse, use that to embarrass district staff,” Dugdale said.
The California Public Records Act (CPRA) is meant to guarantee that the public has access to public records of governmental bodies. The legislation states that: “access to information concerning the conduct of the people’s business is a fundamental and necessary right of every person in this state.” Anyone can request public documents in California and a purpose does not have to be stated.
Canyon Crest Academy Foundation President Kristy Laliotis said they did their own public records request to find out about how many requests were made to the district between June 2017 and May 2018. The results showed there were 104 requests made during that time frame, 43 from Torrey Pines High School parents Wendy and Nathan Gumb.
Laliotis said one of the requests was made for any email that said “Eric” or “Joann”—equaling 10,000 emails. In October 2017, a request was made for any email referencing “Coppo” or “Gladnick,” totaling 5,000 emails.
In May, a request was made for all electronic communication from Superintendent Eric Dill’s personal email and cell phone for the period of April 19-May 14, as well as all electronic communication from trustee Joyce Dalessandro.
Nine requests were made on one day to Assistant Superintendent of Business Services Tina Douglas for any email containing any of the following words: facility usage, foundation, redaction, suppression, baseball, Gumb, Wendy, NG or WG.
Gumb also made public records requests to Rancho Santa Fe School District Superintendent David Jaffe, who was the principal at Torrey Pines High School from 2013 to 2016.
“It is nothing more than a fishing expedition trying to find something damning against the district and there’s literally nothing there, nothing has come out of this,” Laliotis said. “The district has spent at a minimum tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on these requests. What programs are we sacrificing in order to honor these requests?”
Per the act, a local agency must respond no later than 10 calendar days from receipt of the request, to notify whether records will be disclosed. A local agency may extend the 10-day response period for reasons like the need to search for, collect, and appropriately examine a voluminous amount of records demanded in a request but it may not request the time to extend on the basis that it has other pressing business.
Parent Stephanie Kowack said she is frustrated knowing that time would be better spent on issues such as school safety and wellness.
“I understand if there’s some struggle and there’s some pain and you’re hurting and whatever the situation and I feel for you,” Kowack pleaded to Gumb. “But this has to end. We just need to go back to focusing on our students and focusing on our families.”
During public comment at the following June 21 meeting, Gumb responded to the number of community members who “demonstrated strong negative feelings” about her requests.
“Two years ago I started asking questions about missing funds and misuse of public funds and to this day not one person has been able to answer my questions or address the concerns,” said Gumb, who is also leading a recall effort of trustee Dalessandro.
Gumb said she is asking questions to find answers about high school foundation policies, procedures and the flow of money but what she has received in return is “bullying, harassment and slanderous comments.” Her questions, she said, are all about the money—she said she believes that from 2013 to now there is $7.8 million unaccounted for between the Torrey Pines Foundation and the district budget.
“I will continue to assert my right as a California taxpayer under CPRA to receive public records until I understand clearly how every dime raised by the foundation makes its way into our public schools,” said Gumb. “As I continue to peel the onion and learn more information, I will continue to expose other issues that come up.”
Those issues she said include allegations of collusion, district misdeeds, condoning of teacher misconduct, athletic transfer ineligibility, “using public school like a private boarding school for out-of-state athletes” and abuse of power by administrators.
Douglas began tracking the public records requests in November 2017. The estimate as of June 22 of the cost to the district is approximately $40,500. That figure only counts the approximately 695 staff hours spent on redacting emails for exempt records. Douglas said it does not include the staff time to search for the records, nor the legal costs associated with any potential requests that are more sensitive in nature, such as personnel documents.
Rancho Santa Fe School District Superintendent Jaffe said he received a public records request from Gumb which required him and his staff to review all emails and phone calls made specifically to Superintendent Dill or to Dalessandro over a six-month period. The request also asked Jaffe to review all of his cell phone calls from Dill and Dalessandro.
Jaffe said the whole endeavor took 12 hours of district time between himself, his assistant and the district’s director of technology. Approximately two hours of attorney time was also necessary, he said.
Jaffe said he understands the purpose and intent of the CPRA is to provide transparency for public entities that make fiscal decisions but that is not how it is always used. He said because of how broad it is, the CPRA can be used to compile statistical information for things like school rankings. He said the district receives about a half dozen public record requests a month and the district’s attorney reviews them all. Due to the frequency that some information is requested, they have the information stocked and ready to go. He said sometimes they will get an email using very demanding language and he will call only to find out it is a marketing firm.
“Those are requests that have nothing to do with the good of the organization and the students themselves,” Jaffe said. “It also provides disgruntled people in the community a vehicle to bog down a school district and the work they do.”
Jaffe said he will always follow the law and what the requirements are in regard to CPRA.
In the case with Gumb, he said he had no idea why she would make a request of a superintendent in a district she had no tie to.
“When she and her group announced their plan to recall Joyce, it made sense in that maybe she was trying to dig up info that supported her efforts toward the recall,” Jaffe said. “There was absolutely no dirt to dig up.”
At the June 21 board meeting, Rita Macdonald spoke about her own public records request regarding Torrey Pines High School developing a social and emotional learning collaborative and her willingness to serve on an advisory group. She said that the documents were promised by June 10 and when none arrived, no one returned her emails until she got board member Mo Muir involved and they arrived on June 19. She said she felt that it showed a lack of respect.
Macdonald defended Gumb’s efforts to try to find out about what she believes is wasted money and misuse of public funds.
“I respect her immensely for shedding a light,” Macdonald said.
CCA parent Matthew Weil said that he believes Gumb is entitled to make public records requests but noted that “A functioning democracy requires that we temper our rights and exercise them prudently.”
In a June 28 article on public records requests to the San Dieguito Union High School District, it was stated that Kristy Laliotis shared the results of a public records request for requests made by Nathan and Wendy Gumb between June 2017 and May 2018. To clarify, the public records requests were made for all public records requests to the district during that period but the request was not specific to any individual.
There were 104 requests made to the district during the time frame and 43 of the 104 came from the Gumb household, some of which Laliotis detailed at the June 7 SDUHSD board meeting.