ISD 709 transparency problems

John Ramos

As a reporter, I have found that nothing is more helpful in getting to the bottom of a story than federal and state data practices laws. Data practices laws enforce the government’s responsibility to be transparent. At times, it seems almost miraculous that a citizen can fill out a simple form and get information from the government in return—even potentially sensitive information, like internal staff emails. Outside of the US Constitution, data practices laws may be the single most powerful tool citizens have to keep their democracy honest.

That’s why, when former School Board Member Art Johnston recently told me that he had been waiting months for Independent School District 709 to respond to several data requests he had filed, I was outraged. Johnston went on to inform me that one of the requests had been for information about himself. This is known as a “subject data request,” and it stands in a category of its own. While state statute vaguely requires the government to respond to all data requests within a “reasonable” time, it cracks the whip on subject data requests. When citizens ask for information about themselves, state statute requires governmental units to “comply immediately, if possible … or within ten [business] days of the date of the request … if immediate compliance is not possible.”

On March 2, 2018, Johnston had filed a subject data request for all school district emails containing his name. When he contacted me in June, 96 days had passed.

On Friday, June 8, 2018, Johnston and I paid a visit to the administrative offices of ISD 709, located in historic Old Central High School. We arrived at 8:05 a.m., my favorite time for paying unannounced visits. We first went to the office of Chief Financial Officer Doug Hasler. Hasler is the designated data practices compliance officer for the school district. We sat down with him in a small conference room.

This was my first time meeting Mr. Hasler. He was polite and attentive. The first excuse he gave for being 86 days late was that doing data requests was a lot of work. “The data request is rather extensive,” he said. “We’re searching our networks for emails and file documents, and—”

“It doesn’t matter. You have to comply within 10 days.” I handed him a copy of the statute with the relevant portion highlighted.

He read it, or went through the motions of reading it. “Well, we are working on it. We are continuing to work on it, and … I think what we probably need to do is provide a partial response with what we have.”

“Absolutely,” I agreed. “I mean, this is ridiculous. March, April, May, June…three months? Nobody has ever made me wait three months for a personal information data request. It’s illegal!”

“Well, we are working on it, and we’ll get you the information as soon as we can.”

“Not as soon as you can. Right now. Whatever you have right now needs to be given to him.”

“Okay. I appreciate that,” said Hasler. “I don’t have anything to give you right now.”

“Really? In three months, you have nothing?”

“I don’t have anything to provide you at this time.”

“Okay. After three months. That’s your quote for my article?”

He stared at me. “We are continuing to work on this request.”

Next, Art and I walked down the hall to Superintendent Bill Gronseth’s office. Along with Hasler, Gronseth is the other designated data compliance officer for the district. No one was in the outer office, so we rapped on the receptionist’s desk. From the back, Mr. Gronseth called for us to come in. He didn’t seem thrilled to see us. As people will remember, Art Johnston and Bill Gronseth were quite adversarial during Johnston’s eight years on the school board.

I got to the point. “The reason I’m here is I’m working on a story about data practices, and Art told me that he submitted a request back in March for all internal emails that reference him personally … By law, those need to be fulfilled within 10 days … and so I’m wondering what’s taking so long.”

Gronseth appeared to have no idea what I was talking about. I explained subject data requests to him several times and gave him the statute to read.

“Those must be complied [with] and fulfilled within 10 days,” I told him. “By law.”

Gronseth stared at me. “Unless they’re…”

“It doesn’t matter. There’s no ‘unless.’ … Ten days is the cutoff.”

“What did Doug have to say?”

“He said he would get it to Art as soon as possible. That doesn’t fly. Ten days. You’re at 90-something right now … It has to be fulfilled within 10 days.”

“I don’t think that’s the case.”

“Oh, you don’t? … That’s your quote? For the article?”

“Well, I don’t have more information for you right now, without talking to him. I need to have some time to talk to him.”

On June 13, 2018, his request still not fulfilled, Johnston asked for an advisory opinion from the Commissioner of Administration on Data Practices, in St. Paul. In his petition, Johnston mentioned not only the requests he had made on March 2, but also requests he had made to the school district dating back to 2011, which had also gone unfulfilled. Many of those earlier requests were for contracts and other documentation related to Johnson Controls, the consultant that had helped the school district sell their insanely expensive Long-Range Facilities Plan (known, of course, as the Red Plan) to the public. 

In response to one of Johnston’s requests, from 2014, the school district had informed him that he would have to pay $2,105 before they would process it. Under data practices law, asking a citizen for money before processing a data request is blatantly illegal: “The responsible authority may not assess a charge or require the requesting person to pay a fee to inspect data.”

Even more egregiously, when Johnston made those earlier requests, he was a sitting School Board member. The mere idea that the administration would ignore a member’s request to see documents is astonishing. But, in Duluth, the DFL-controlled school board inevitably rubber-stamps the administration’s decisions without question, and during his tenure Johnston repeatedly ran afoul of the majority with his many cantankerous questions. So tight is the DFL’s chokehold on the district (and so dismal was Johnston’s reputation among them) that nobody found it at all concerning when he was denied access to contracts and change orders involving millions of taxpayer dollars.

Today, the consequences of that abdication of oversight are becoming clearer all the time, as the school district’s reserve fund has dropped from $30 million to nothing, and citizens are asked to cough up ever more money, to cover the slow-rolling fallout of the Red Plan. Only 14 more years to go on the bonds!

The school district has until July 6 to submit any supporting documentation to the Commissioner of Administration, who will render an opinion on Johnston’s data requests by Aug. 2. Stay tuned.

A very smart board indeed

During the hype and pomp surrounding the Red Plan sell-job, Johnson Controls and the school administration promised that all the new classrooms in all the new schools would be equipped with the latest in state-of-the-art technology to assist with student learning. The centerpiece of this glorious vision was SMART Boards, interactive displays that would stand in front of the room and allow children to soak up knowledge like thirsty human sponges. The school board happily supported the administration’s request to spend millions of dollars on SMART Boards.

Two weeks ago, at the school board’s Education Committee meeting, the administration informed members  that the SMART Boards were being scrapped. “In light of budget constraints, it has become apparent that we are not able to continue to fund the types of equipment installed during the modernization of our buildings,” states the memo.

In addition to getting rid of the SMART Boards, the memo continues, “The Technology Department … will not repair or replace the following systems due to insufficient funding: Panasonic video security systems, classroom/teacher sound amplification systems … 250-plus network HP and Dell printers, 40-plus fax systems … Chromebook support outside the core 1,710 systems [and] auditorium and lab projectors.”

At press time, it was unknown whether the school district planned to invest in inkwells and feather pens for the future.

They like me, they like me not…

Compared to Gronseth and Hasler, dealing with the city on data requests is a breeze. Over the past several years, the city has improved its handling of data requests tremendously. They used to respond to them in a piecemeal fashion, farming them out to various departments for fulfillment, which produced wildly inconsistent results. Sometimes you’d get the information right away, other times it would take forever, and in some cases the request would get lost altogether as it caromed around City Hall.

Today, however, the city has an attorney specifically assigned to handle data requests. Mr. Steven Hanke does a good job of it, too—he acknowledges requests when he gets them, figures out where they need to go, and follows up to make sure they get fulfilled. Unlike the school district, Mr. Hanke actually knows the law. When I filed a subject data request recently for city emails that mentioned me by name, I had the results in my hand in 9 days.

In reviewing those emails, which date back to 2016, I learned some fun facts.

My articles are widely shared in City Hall. 

I came across many instances of city employees emailing my articles to one another. I was surprised to find that many of them garnered positive reviews (“Fascinating!!” “Good read!”). In other instances, employees expressed concern as to whether I was allowed to say what I was saying.

City Councilor Barb Russ isn’t my biggest fan. 

With her placid, grandmotherly demeanor, Councilor Russ looks about as mean as an ice cream sandwich. When I attended the city council retreat in 2016, however, I recorded Russ and others backstabbing and gossiping about their fellow Councilor Jay Fosle, who was absent, they later learned, due to health reasons. 

I believe Russ’s dislike of me stems from the article I wrote about that 2016 retreat. Later that year, in an email conversation where my name came up in a separate matter, Russ wrote, “I have no respect at all for him.” And this past March, when Council President Elissa Hansen emailed Russ the agenda for this year’s retreat, Russ responded, “I am not feeling well, so I do not think I will be there. More importantly, if John Ramos is there, I will leave. He will distort what we say.”

President Hansen wisely advised Russ that “John Ramos is always there.” Russ did not attend the retreat.

Parks Commission President Erik Torch fears I am influencing people with my false perspective. 

Last February, the city presented the Parks Commission with their plan for a new water access park on the St. Louis River, below Spirit Mountain. The commission, after hours of debate, voted against it. The next day, Mayor Emily Larson announced that she was going to bring the proposal to the City Council anyway—which caused me to wonder, in a series of emails to the Parks Commission, why the mayor was including them in the discussion at all, since she clearly had no interest in abiding by what they said.

On Feb. 18, 2018, Parks Commission President Erik Torch (who voted in favor of the park) emailed the mayor and city administrators. “There needs to be some outreach, ideally from the Mayor, to give assurances on the value of the commission … and to hear from her why she’s recommending adoption of the site plan … I think this is important for the future health of the Commission, as we’ve seen from some emails going around by John Ramos ... We have people who are only too eager to promote the idea that the city is just ramrodding through its ideas with little regards to public opinion. There are a number of commissioners, in light of these events, who I fear are more open to this perspective, as false as I think it is.”

Thus we see the mindset of a distressingly large number of people in public positions in Duluth (and probably elsewhere): When faced with evidence of something they don’t like, they just deny it exists. Does that remind you of anybody? Sad!

My data requests are shared with city administration. 

As I have filed data requests over the years, I often wondered if the people I was investigating actually knew about it. Now, I know they do. On several occasions, Mr. Hanke or another attorney forwarded my data requests to top city administrators, often with a simple “FYI” as the message. It’s nice to know that by submitting data requests, I am telegraphing my future moves to the city. Maybe I’ll start including little messages with my requests, to add a personal touch: “Hi, Jim!” or “How’s it going, Dave?” or “What’s up, Emily?” Simple courtesy goes a long way in the reporting business.