A year ago this week, I filed a public-records request with the Indiana Department of Education. I’m still waiting to see if I’ll get what I asked for.
Kelly Bauder, a state DOE staff attorney, admitted this week that the department has been running behind on responding to a trove of records requests. Two employees who were working on the task left the department, she said. A new legal assistant has been hired and is learning the ropes.
“We’re hoping to get caught back up in the next couple of weeks,” she told me.
My request was for copies of departmental emails from 2012 concerning changes in the state’s school grading system. The objective is to tie up a loose end to a story.
Last summer, Associated Press Reporter Tom LoBianco disclosed DOE emails showing how former Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett and his staff scrambled to tweak the system so Christel House Academy, an Indy charter school run by a Bennett political supporter, would get an A instead of a C.
Those emails showed the department decided not to count the performance of Christel House’s 9th and 10th-graders for accountability purposes. That boosted its grade from a C to a B. How did it get to an A? Thanks to Cynthia Roach, director of assessment for Indianapolis Public Schools, we learned the other change: getting rid of a “ceiling” on points awarded elementary schools for math or English test scores.
But it was never clear when, why and by whom that decision was made.
When John Grew and Bill Sheldrake investigated the grading change for state legislative leaders, they were told the ceiling wasn’t part of the grading formula the state board of education adopted in February 2012. But evidence suggested the ceiling wasn’t eliminated until September 2012. Maybe more emails, if they exist, will shed light on what happened.
Over the past year, I emailed the Department of Education several times to check on my records request. Each time the response was, essentially, “we’re working on it.”
The Indiana Access to Public Records Act says that, if disclosure of a record is required, a state agency must provide it in a reasonable time. But it doesn’t define reasonable.
Bauder, the DOE attorney, said a year-long wait is reasonable given staffing constraints and the load of duties the department must perform. She pointed out that records must be retrieved individually and reviewed to determine if they’re subject to public disclosure.
But Steve Key, executive director of the Hoosier State Press Association, said a full year seems excessive. “I appreciate that a backlog could develop,” Key said, “but that indicates a greater interest among the public for information, and the department should devote more resources to meet the demand.”
The Christel House grade-change story was a big deal. It led to Bennett’s resignation as Florida education commissioner and poisoned relations between his supporters and Glenda Ritz, his Democratic successor in Indiana. It would be a shame if even a small part of the story remains untold.