On Thursday, I drove about two hours to Gregory, spent three minutes in the Gregory School District office, and then drove the 110 miles back to Mitchell. Why? Because that's the only way anyone in the district would give me the answers to three questions about school lunches.
Earlier in the week, I made another trip seeking information, this one to the Tripp-Delmont School District. That district was more flexible - I technically did not have to drive to Tripp to have someone read the answers to my questions off a single sheet of paper. To have the answers sent to me, our office instead could have paid $200 for the answers to be typed and sent.
In total, I submitted the same records request to all 146 public school districts in the state, asking how much money they were owed in negative lunch balances. And that's how I learned about the vaguely written South Dakota open records laws that seem to be made up almost exclusively of loopholes favoring the people responding to (or at least receiving) records requests.
For instance, the law says that within 10 business days, the custodian of the record (the person in charge of the records) has to respond by providing the records, asking for clarification, asking for more time to compile the records or denying the request and explaining why. Fair enough, right? It might be, if the law didn't go on to say that if the custodian doesn't respond within 10 business days, that's considered a denial of the request.
Essentially, the custodian can simply ignore the request and hope that the person who submitted it is too lazy to take the next step, which is to either commence a civil suit - something that can potentially take a lot of time and money - or by filing a written notice of review with the Office of Hearing Examiners, which has to be done by mail and isn't exactly an instantaneous solution.
To reward custodians thoughtful and brave enough to actually respond to a records request, the law - South Dakota Codified Law 1-27, if you're looking for some light weekend reading - permits custodians to ask for a fee for providing records.
The particular statute that outlines this starts by saying that custodians can ask for the requestor to pay the cost of reproducing, mailing or transmitting the records. Seems fair.
They also can request any other fees outlined by statute or administrative rule. OK, as long as there's a set amount, that's reasonable. But if there isn't a set rate for a particular document, such as lunch balance records, the Bureau of Administration advises "the maximum rate, or the formula for calculating rates, for reproduction and retrieval."
I'm sorry, what?
Altogether, more than a dozen school districts would not release some or all of the information I requested without payment. I can't find this maximum rate they're using, but apparently they're all using the same formula, as almost all asked for approximately $200.
To their credit, several of those districts ended up answering my questions when I explained that I didn't need all the records, but just some line-item information. However, eight did not. And because they've stopped responding to communication from me, I'd encourage anyone living near the Viborg-Hurley, Florence, Kadoka Area, Edmunds Central, Mobridge-Pollock, Doland, Lennox or Freeman school districts to go to their district's administrative office and ask why they find it reasonable to demand $200 for five numbers and the answer to one yes-or-no question (maybe go easy on Freeman, though - the business manager there did only ask for $25). I'd love to know what they say.
Maybe the resistance is motivated by fear. One superintendent said that it's not uncommon for people in school districts to worry that if they give out information, it will lead to more problems for the schools to deal with.
Call me crazy, but I feel that if a citizen, reporter or not, asks for public records, it's not right to try to put up barriers to them getting that information simply because the person with that information legally can, or even because they're scared of what might happen if that information gets out to the public.
Is it legal to ask someone for hundreds of dollars for public-record information that will take fewer than 10 minutes to find and send? Technically, yes. But like a lot of other things that are technically legal, it's not necessarily reasonable or right.