School Board considering policy on data requests

By Joel Stottrup
Union-Eagle reporter
The Princeton School Board has a desire to learn more about access to public data.
The board has instructed Superintendent Julia Espe to schedule a  training session on setting a policy regarding how the public asks for data and how the district should respond in making that data available.
The board’s directive followed the board’s Sept. 10 discussion on setting a policy on access to data by the public. It was a discussion in which one board member accused another board member of causing the board to have to look into the idea.
The agenda called for a first reading of a draft of a data-request policy.
As it turned out, the topic just generated a lot of questions, with Board Member Eric Minks making the suggestion that the board find someone to give training on what such a policy should contain. Minks, who as an officer with the Princeton Police Department likely would have studied some data privacy laws, said those particular laws “have changed dramatically in the past two years.” He then recommended that either a school administrator or two or more board members get training on what to do in establishing policy relevant to the public asking for school data.
Espe had opened the discussion by stating that the Princeton School District does not have a written policy on dealing with data requests and that her understanding was the board was taking up the topic to create a policy. There are laws with guidelines on how such requests are to be made and how the district should respond, she added.
“We don’t get a lot of requests,” Espe continued. “A lot (of requests) can be taken care of electronically. Very few people ask for paper copies.” Espe also said she thought the district wouldn’t charge for paper copies of data.
Board Member Howard Vaillancourt asked if the policy would allow people to use photo or scanning devices on data. He also voiced concerns about information that was confidential somehow slipping out when giving out data.
Board Member Craig Johnson revisited the idea of charging for copies of data.
“I feel if it is taking a lot of time there should be a charge, even if it is electronically,” he said. Johnson also suggested that the superintendent should first look at any information being requested, in case some of it should be removed and that the superintendent should be able to make the call on whether to charge.
Vaillancourt said that he thinks people should just focus on what they want in data and only ask for copies of that. Vaillancourt asked how the district should respond if the person making the request is just asking for curriculum materials.
“We can’t ask them why (they are seeking any particular materials),” School Board Chair Deb Ulm answered.
School Board Member Chuck Nagle suggested that a person could simply ask for the minutes of the past five years of board meetings. Johnson responded that there should then be a charge.
Vaillancourt asked if there should be a place where district personnel could view the materials the public seeks.
Minks talked about the “occupy” groups going to city halls and school districts and “requesting mountains of paperwork to slow things down,” and called those requests a “brand of terrorism.”
Minks did agree there should be some policy.
Johnson said the district shouldn’t have to pay someone to be in a room “all day long” supervising what data is released.
School Board Member Jeremy Miller asked if the Minnesota School Board Association has guidelines on this, and Espe said it doesn’t.
Once again, the board is only supposed to be talking about “the minimum we need to do” in regard to data requests, Nagle said. The board’s policy committee said there is “no problem to deal with today or in the past. As the superintendent said, we are just formalizing the process. We are not interested in putting more restrictions on (getting data).”
Nagle did agree that some research should be done on the data privacy laws before setting the policy.
Johnson said he thought board members were dancing around what Johnson declared is a problem in the district handling data requests.
“Chuck, you took us down this road,” Johnson said to Nagle, referring to Nagle’s request for district information in recent months.
Nagle, referring to Johnson’s comments on charging for copies, said he would be glad to get the copies for $1 each if that is what the board decides to have in the policy.
Nagle, asked after the meeting about his recent request for school data, said he wants to be as informed as possible in is job of making decisions on the School Board.