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Open records: 24 of 36 school districts provide budgets when asked

Many of the requests were met with reluctance. “What do you want it for?” one business manager asked. “I don’t know why we should just give it to you,” another one said.

In a test of open records in conjunction with Sunshine Week, 24 of 36 school districts in The Daily Republic’s print circulation area complied with a request for a digital copy of their most recent budget. That’s a compliance rate of 67 percent.

Even among those who complied, reluctance and suspicion were common. Of the 36 calls made, 17 of those who answered sought information from the caller, usually asking why the document was being requested and where the caller was from.

Daily Republic staffers made the calls, but they dialed from personal cell phones, gave only their first name and said they were working on a research project related to school budgets. The goal was testing whether school district officials would freely provide the budget — a document defined by South Dakota law as an open record — to anyone who asked for it.

The Daily Republic was joined in the effort by Dakotafire Media, of Frederick, and Northern Plains News, of Harrisburg. Those two organizations made similar requests of school districts in their area.

Of the 65 total public school districts surveyed by all three media entities, 44 shared their annual budget upon request, a compliance rate of 68 percent, or about two-thirds. CLICK HERE FOR GRAPHIC.

Dave Bordewyk, general manager of the South Dakota Newspaper Association and a frequent lobbyist on government openness, said state Codified Law 1-27-1 allows any citizen to request government records such as public school district annual budgets.

“There’s nothing in state law that requires the requester to be identified or disclose what they’re using the information for,” Bordewyk said Friday in an interview with The Daily Republic.

Bordewyk was not surprised by the findings from the Sunshine Week project. Sunshine Week, launched in 2005, is an annual nationwide initiative to promote open government and push back against excessive official secrecy. Today is the final day of Sunshine Week.

Some of the school districts, such as South Central and Howard, were quick to comply with the request for the budget.

In Howard, the business office instantly said yes, and the document was received by email within a few minutes. At South Central, the business manager asked for an email address and sent the budget within 10 minutes.

Others weren’t as forthcoming.

The Gregory School District, for instance, was called Tuesday and the business manager’s initial response to the request was, “I don’t think so.”

The caller said, “Can I ask why?” and the business manager admitted the budget is public information, but said “It’s published in the paper,” which was a reference to the Gregory weekly paper. “You can see it there,” the business manager added.

In The Daily Republic’s print circulation area, 11 school districts complied and sent the budget upon request without any questions. Of the 17 who questioned callers about their identity or why they wanted the budget, 13 eventually sent the budget, and four never did. Another seven either refused to comply, or agreed to comply but failed to follow through. One did not respond to the request.

Bordewyk guessed school districts don’t often receive requests for school budgets, explaining that’s likely the reason questions were asked upon request.

“I think this points out the need for better education and more training of government officials at all levels of South Dakota for compliance of public records,” he said. “South Dakota needs to offer more training for access of public records, because a school budget is a public record, pure and simple.”

Following are narratives describing what happened in each of the school districts contacted by The Daily Republic.

Andes Central: Three calls and one message left with the business manager in two days were not returned.

Armour: The business manager explained she was working on next year’s budget, saying, “Once I get it done, I can send it to you.” Then she asked where the caller was from. When the caller said Mitchell, she said, “I’d like to know what you’re looking for it for.” After the caller gave the business manager an email address, she said “We’ll see what I can do.”

The budget was never received.

Avon: The business manager asked why the caller wanted the budget. The caller explained it was for a research project on school budgets, but the business manager wanted further explanation. When the called explained he would rather not get into more detail, the business manager said, “I don’t know why we should just give it to you then.”

After the caller told the business manager that the school budget is a public document, the business manager said, “We do present it for the public and pay publishing costs in the local newspaper, but I don’t have a digital copy.”

The business manager then asked why the caller was being so secretive about the project and explained he would be willing to mail the budget if the caller was willing to pay for the costs of copying the budget. After further discussion, the business manager said the district would have it scanned and added, “We’ll see if we can get it out to you.”

Later that evening, the superintendent called the caller back and left a voicemail asking why the request for the budget was made and what it would be used for. The budget was received two days after the request.

Bon Homme: The caller reached a receptionist, who transferred the call to the business manager. He said he would be able to send the caller a budget, and it was received within an hour of making the call.

Bridgewater-Emery: The caller requested the budget and was told it would be sent the next morning after being asked what it was for. The school called back and asked the caller if he worked for The Daily Republic after recognizing the reporter’s name from a personal email address. The budget was then sent the next morning.

Burke: The caller requested the budget and talked to the secretary, who said the business manager was busy on a conference call. When asked whether the business manager had voicemail, the secretary responded, “It isn’t set up yet, but I can take your information and have her call you or email you.” When given an email address, the secretary asked if the caller was from Mitchell and where she attends school. The caller told the secretary the caller is not a student, but is with The Daily Republic. The secretary asked for an email and said the business manager would email the budget. The budget was received.

Canistota: The caller requested the budget from the secretary, who answered the phone and transferred the call to another person. A male answered and didn’t identify himself. When asked whether someone could email a budget, he said the business manager would be back later in the day. He then identified himself as the superintendent and said to call the business manager.

On a callback, the business manager did not hesitate to give the budget, but asked what part of the budget was needed, and the caller asked for the whole budget. The business manager asked what the information was for. After the caller explained the budget was needed for a research project, the business manager asked whether the caller wanted input from the superintendent. The caller stated just the budget was needed. The school’s budget was received by email.

Chamberlain: The caller was transferred to the assistant business manager upon requesting the budget. The assistant said the business manager was out but asked for an email to send the budget. The school’s budget was received by email.

Colome: Upon request of the budget, the caller was transferred to the business manager. The caller requested the budget for a research project. The finance manager then asked what media outlet the caller was with. The caller said The Daily Republic. The budget was later received by email.

Corsica: The caller was transferred to the superintendent. The superintendent said the business manager would handle the request, but was not immediately available. The caller called again later and the business manager answered, asking for the caller to request the budget at a later time.

The next morning, when the caller asked for the budget, the business manager began asking the caller questions — “What is the project for?” “Are you a student?” “What is your last name?” “Have other schools been doing this?” “What have they been sending you?” “Could you email me what they sent you, so I have an idea what you want?” “What company are you with?” In response to the last question, the caller explained she was from The Daily Republic. The caller later received the school’s budget by email.

Ethan: Caller talked to the secretary, who said the business manager was out of town. The secretary said she would let the superintendent know the caller was requesting the school budget, and the secretary took down the caller’s name, phone number and email. The budget was not received.

Freeman: Caller was told to talk to the business manager, who was gone for the week. Caller was also told to call back Monday. The budget was never received.

Gregory: On Tuesday, the caller was transferred to the office of the business manager, and her initial response to the caller’s request was, “I don’t think so.”

The caller said, “Can I ask why?” The business manager admitted the budget is public information but said, “It’s published in the paper. You can see it there.” That was a reference to the weekly paper in Gregory.

The caller requested a digital copy and said she doesn’t have access to the specific edition of the Gregory weekly paper that included the school budget. The business manager again acknowledged it’s public information, and said she could email what was published. The caller gave an email address; nothing was received.

The caller tried again Thursday. The business manager asked for the caller’s full name, and where she was from, then asked to talk to the caller’s boss. The call — made from a cell phone — was disconnected, but the business manager called back on The Daily Republic line and said she would send the budget after talking about the project to the newspaper’s publisher. After talking to the publisher, the business manager finally sent the budget.

Hanson: The caller requested the budget and talked to the business manager, who asked if postal mail would be acceptable. The caller then requested the budget by fax, and it was received that way soon after.

Howard: The business office instantly said yes, and the document was received within a few minutes. The first version sent was not a file format that could be opened, so the caller emailed the business office back. A viewable version was sent within a few minutes. The caller noted that the woman who fielded the request was pleasant, friendly and helpful.

Jones County: The caller spoke with the district’s business manager on Tuesday to request a digital copy of the budget. The business manager agreed to email a copy of the budget, but it was not received until after a follow-up call was made Wednesday.

Kimball: The caller was required to leave a message with the district’s business manager after requesting a copy of the district’s budget Tuesday. That call was not immediately returned.

After the caller contacted the district’s business manager Wednesday, the business manager agreed to provide a digital copy of the district’s most recent budget, but only after asking why it was being requested. The budget was received.

Lyman: The caller contacted the district Tuesday to request a copy of the district’s budget, but was told to call back Wednesday because the business manager was gone.

When the caller contacted the district Wednesday, the secretary repeatedly asked why the request was being made, but eventually agreed to ask the superintendent to send a digital copy of the budget. Later that day, the superintendent contacted the caller and again asked why the request was being made, and the caller then admitted to being a reporter. The superintendent then directed the caller to the district’s website, where the budget is available in the school board’s minutes.

McCook Central: The caller was asked to leave a message with the district’s business manager after requesting a copy of the district’s budget Tuesday. That call was not immediately returned.

During a follow-up call Wednesday, the caller spoke with the business manager, who agreed to send a digital copy of the district’s most recent budget without asking why it was being requested. The budget was never received.

Menno: The caller asked for a copy of the district’s budget Tuesday, but was required to leave a message with the district’s business manager, who was not available. That call was not immediately returned.

The caller contacted the district again Wednesday and spoke with the business manager, who agreed to send a digital copy of the district’s most recent budget, which was received by email within minutes of the call.

Mitchell: Caller was forwarded to the Mitchell School District’s website, http://www.mitchell.k12.sd.us/Finances/budgets.html, where the budget was found.

Montrose: The caller requested the budget from a secretary who said the business manager was out. The secretary said the business manager handles everything with the budget and no one else could help. The budget was never received.

Mount Vernon: The caller talked to the business manager, who then asked the superintendent for permission to email a budget. The business manager said the district could send a partial budget, but it was never received.

Parkston: Caller talked to the business manager, who emailed the budget later that day.

Plankinton: The caller reached a receptionist and was transferred to the business manager. The business manager asked how detailed the caller wanted the budget to be, and the caller responded, “Whatever you have would be great.” The caller received separate documents for revenue and expenditures via email the same day.

Platte/Geddes: The caller reached a receptionist and was transferred to the business manager. The business manager asked what sort of budget the caller wanted and then asked “OK, where can I send this?” The business manager said she’d work on it later that day. No budget was received.

Sanborn Central: The caller reached a receptionist, who transferred the caller to the business manager. The business manager said she would work on her software, took down the caller’s email and said something would be provided. The budget was received within an hour of the call via email. The next day, upon finding out that the caller was a Daily Republic staff member, the business manager emailed the newspaper and said she “would expect honesty next time from staff members of The Daily Republic.”

Scotland: The caller reached a receptionist and was transferred to the business manager. He questioned the caller’s intent and where the caller was from. No budget was received.

South Central: The business manager asked for an email address and sent the budget within 10 minutes.

Stickney: The caller was transferred to the superintendent, who questioned why the caller wanted the budget and who the caller was. “It is a public record, but I don’t know anything about you, I don’t know what you do and I don’t know what you’re planning on using it for,” the superintendent said. “We can send it, but I’d like to know more about why you need this.” The superintendent said he would transfer the caller to the business manager and advised the caller to “tell her why you want it.” After being transferred, the business manager asked if the budget could be faxed. The fax with the budget arrived within two hours of the call and was a copy of what was printed in the local Stickney newspaper with amendments added.

Tripp-Delmont: The business manager took down the caller’s information and sent the budget via email.

Wagner: The caller talked to a secretary, who said the business manager was out of the office. The secretary asked the caller why the budget was needed and asked for the caller’s full name. The secretary recorded the caller’s email address, but the budget was never received.

Wessington Springs: The business manager told the caller that all the school budgets are on the state Department of Education website. After checking the website and talking to a Department of Education representative and not finding the budget on the website, the caller requested the budget from the school district again the next day. The business manager was out, and the secretary who answered the phone said the business manager is the only person who could send the budget. The caller asked if anyone else could send it since it is a public record. The secretary replied, “I know it’s public record, but it’s all on her computer and no one else can do it.” The budget was never sent.

White Lake: On Tuesday, the caller talked to the business manager, who said she could email the budget on Thursday. On Thursday, the business manager, explaining she was at a meeting with other business managers on Wednesday, asked what the request was for. She then asked if it was for The Daily Republic. The caller said yes, and the business manager replied, “Well, it would have been nice to know that when you first called.” The caller explained the open-records survey. The business manager said she knew the budget was an open record and that it was published in the local newspaper in July. The budget was later received by email.

Winner: The caller talked to a secretary, who explained the business manager and superintendent were out of town. The secretary later sent a partial budget.

Woonsocket: The caller was transferred to the business manager’s secretary, who took down the caller’s name and number. The business manager called back and said the budget would be sent, but not immediately. The budget was never received.

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