A public records request was filed with Columbus City Schools (CCS) on December 29, 2020, seeking information about teacher absences and its substitute coverage. The request specifically asked for information for the school years ending in 2018, 2019, and 2020.
On January 22, 2021, a follow-up email was sent stating the records had not yet been received and on February 8, 2021, a complaint was filed alleging the denial of access to the requested public records. The school district filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, arguing that the requested records do not exist, and the case went into mediation. Let’s break it down.
What Constitutes a Record?
When requesting public records, the requestor must first show that the items sought meet the statutory definition of “records,” and that the records were kept by CCS. “Records” are defined as documents, items within them, and reports or files aggregated from separate records.
CCS does not dispute that the requested data is in its computers Substitute Employment Management System (SEMS). Rather, they argue that the requested data report does not exist because SEMS is not designed to create reports with the exact information requested. To satisfy the request, the database information would have to be manually manipulated.
The Database Rule
A public office is only required to produce existing records and has no obligation to create new records, including new compilations of dispersed data. In this case, the request is “new” in the sense that CCS has not used the database software to compile this specific kind of information in the past. However, if an electronic database used by a public office has existing programming that can produce the output sought in a public records request, then that output already “exists” for the purposes of the Public Records Act.
Does the Requested Data Exist?
CCS asserts that producing the report in the matter requested would require SEMS to create datasets that would then need to be manually manipulated, i.e., create a new record. However, it is not a valid excuse to deny a requestor the use of the database functionality to “create” a record. CCS attests that information must first be extracted from the database to an Excel spreadsheet and then manipulated with the Excel function of “pivot tables,” a data manipulation option not available in SEMS. Although the district admitted it could manipulate the data with what appears to be a minimal additional effort, they claim that the requested monthly statistics are technically not a record the database was already programmed to produce.
Ultimately the requestor failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that the output can be produced, nor could they show that CCS had a duty to produce it, and the request was denied.
Further, CCS asserted that the initial request was “overly broad” by not identifying an existing compilation of records. However, CCS failed to respond in a timely manner which denied the requestor the opportunity to properly revise the request and avoid litigation.
What this Means for Your District
First and foremost, regardless of whether you intend to honor the request, you’ll need to respond in a timely manner, which is subjective to the pertinent facts and circumstances of the request. Additionally, if the data program you are using can produce a document to satisfy a request, you must do so. If ever there is a question about what records may be released and the timeliness the information should be given, a member of the Ennis Britton legal team would be happy to guide you.