School districts pricing out parents on record requests by charging tens of thousands in 'exorbitant fees'
Parents around the United States are being charged tens of thousands of dollars, including some fees into the millions, for public records requests in their school districts, Fox News Digital has learned.
Fox News Digital spoke with parents around the county – such as in Michigan, Oregon, and Rhode Island — as well as with public records experts who said they believed schools were using exorbitant fees in order to price parents out of the information they are legally entitled to, such as those related to curriculum.
A parent from Frederick County Public Schools in Maryland told Fox News Digital that she requested emails that spanned one month between various entities and was asked to pay $5,000. "I never got the [records] because that's well beyond what I'm willing to pay for information my tax dollars already paid for," she said. FCPS was contacted for comment but did not immediately respond.
In Oregon, the Oregon Department of Education slapped on $10 per email review in various requests. For example, to review 963 emails, the fee was $9,630; for 382 emails, the fee was $3,820; and 109 emails would cost $1,090, according to a complaint with the attorney general that was reviewed by Fox News Digital. The total fees subject to the complaint were ultimately reduced from nearly 15K to a few hundred bucks.
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Another request a parent sent into ODE came back with a fee of $1,525. "You may narrow the scope of your request to reduce your overall cost estimate," a rules coordinator at ODE said, according to an email reviewed by Fox News Digital.
"How could I narrow my request? Is this not a single document?… I do not understand what you mean by narrowing or how 1 document costs $1,525 to download and email to me. Or why 3 hours of time is needed by IT to again download 1 document and email it. Please explain," the parent asked. Fox News Digital reached out to ODE for comment but did not immediately receive a response.
In Rochester, Michigan, the district reportedly charged fees as high as $18 million to complete their requests. "I don’t know what they’re hiding, but they’re definitely hiding information. Why make it so difficult for parents to get [public records] if they don’t have something to hide," a parent told local media.
Another parent in the district said she had a public records fee of $172,951.67.
"There are some parents who have in the millions and most parents are afraid to speak out," parent Laurie Madigan said.
"FOIA allows the District to charge certain fees incurred for processing and responding to FOIA requests when a failure to charge a fee would result in unreasonably high costs to the District because of the nature of the request," the school district told Fox News Digital in a statement. Examples they provided included voluminous requests, requests that require time-consuming searches, and significant redaction.
The parents' fears of sharing their fee stubs with the media are due to stories of school districts acting against parents. One district was accused of spying and creating a list tracking over 200 parents; Rochester School District ultimately paid 190K in a settlement agreement with a parent in March who alleged her employer was contacted by someone in the district, causing her to lose her job. The parent had been advocating on social media in support of kids returning to in-person learning.
Rochester's counsel denied any wrongdoing, that they engaged in retaliation as well as the existence of the list. "Rochester Community Schools does not have a dossier. The notion of a dossier appears to have been conceived by an attorney for litigation purposes. Rochester Community Schools does not have a list of names of parents who are on social media," the district previously said.
"I didn't know that anyone was monitoring anything until I was called into the HR office," the parent, Elena Dinverno, said. A deputy superintendent, Debra Fragomeni, contacted her employer to let them know she was participating in a Facebook group that had "threatening behavior," local media reported. Fox News Digital reached out to Fragomeni but did not immediately receive a response.
"The fact that they were doing it in secret, the fact that they were compiling dossiers of parents… was shocking to me," the parent said.
"How dare you? How dare you track me," a parent named Stephanie Van Deal said in a school board meeting.
In a statement to Fox News Digital the district said, "Recent tragic experiences of violence in other districts, such as Uvalde, Texas, and even closer to home, demand that we pay attention to all forms of media, publications and broadcasts, including social media comments, which have been shown to contain clues that could have prevented the loss of life had they been acted upon."
In Rhode Island, South Kingstown, a parent activist named Nicole Solas sent in requests that amounted to 74K regarding the school's curriculum for her daughter, who was in kindergarten at the time. She told Fox News Digital it was her last resort as the school refused to answer her questions.
"If public information is priced outside of affordability, and it's not really public information, it's a government secret," Solas said.
"I don't think [this fee] is reasonable under any circumstances," her attorney Jon Riches of the Goldwater Institute, said, in an interview with Fox News Digital. "I mean, the parents have a right to know what their kids are going to learn; and that includes getting access to the curriculum, to lesson plans and anything else in the classroom. There should be no charge for [it]. There shouldn't be a formal public records process. The district should put that information up on a publicly available website so parents and their kids can make informed decisions."
Then, Solas was slapped with a lawsuit by a teachers union, the National Education Association. "Essentially [they were] trying to stop the public records process," Riches said. "I think it was a pure intimidation tactic to tell parents that they know what's best for their kids. And if parents are going to be active and be responsible and try and get information, then, well, you know, they don't like it. And then you're going to be on their list next."
"Being sued by a special interest group, the NEA, that has $300 million in a slush fund that's available to just bully stay-at-home moms like me was a real eye-opener to how public school really operates," Solas said.
Fox News Digital reached out to the NEA for comment but did not immediately receive a response. However, Bob Walsh, the union’s executive director, had previously argued that he believed Solas should get access to the school's curriculum. The lawsuit, he said, sought to prevent faculty's private information in order to "stop the school committee from releasing anything that’s 100% protected under law" and to "impose a balancing test on whether individual names should be released — whether the privacy interests of individual teachers outweigh any underlying elements of the requests." He added that Solas was named in the suit because the "law requires all interested parties to be named in the complaint."
In December, a Florida dad who has a son with autism sued the Hillsborough County Public Schools superintendent, Addison Davis, after he was charged $8,020 for a request he made on mask mandates; the father believed virtual learning was discriminating against his son. Fox News Digital reached out to Davis but did not immediately receive a response.
"I’m just some random Black guy in Tampa," Blake Warner said. "If I could realize all these harms to kids, I’m sure school board members and administrators could as well."
Additionally, journalists are also being charged exorbitant fees for requests. In Iowa, a journalist named Jacob Hall requested records relating to "Transgender Week" at Linn-Mar High School; it would cost $604,000 for the records. Fox News Digital reached out to the principal for comment but did not immediately receive a response.
Randy Evans, who is the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, told Fox News Digital that the 604K was the highest he has seen thus far. However, he routinely sees fees in the thousands, which he believes is too high. "The reality is that for most ordinary folks in Iowa having to write a check for a $1,000 or $1,200 dollars to get records about what is occurring in their school district seems exorbitant to me."
Districts counter-argue that the ballooning requests they are sent cause them to hire more people and to pay thousands to respond with the information. Depending on the nature of the request, schools may need to meticulously redact, or they opt to send the records to an attorney for review.
For example, New Hanover County Schools in North Carolina decided last year to begin charging fees due to the voluminous requests sent their way. In one example, a request they received pulled up 400,000 emails, which they estimated would cost $100,000 to print.
And in Minnesota, a law firm called Equality in Education filed a request at the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district that spanned 41 pages, which was estimated to cost $900K to fulfill. According to the superintendent, Kent Pekel, it would take 13,000 hours to produce all the records. A local paper strongly criticized the request. They said, "We wish them good luck as they peruse the tens of thousands of pages of documents in their search for a third-grade teacher’s text message that uses the words ‘race’ and ‘critical’ in the same sentence."
However, the public records expert from Iowa counters that while he agrees there "is a cost associated with public records," schools should be looking for ways to keep the fees down. Evans said that schools should pay lawyers to issue a memorandum to train staff on what they legally need to redact and withhold, in order to – for example – avoid violating students' privacy – or the Family Rights and Protection Act (FERPA).
"I just don't believe that the only way that you can guard against violating the FERPA statute is by having a lawyer half a state away reviewing every email that is up for consideration to be released," Evans said.
"I think that government is using the cost as a way to place records out of reach of ordinary folks," he continued.
And in addition to the alleged tactic to use exorbitant fees to restrict public access, sometimes schools deny they have records that parents may strongly believe exist.
For example, Carol Beth Litkouhi heard that a public high school in Rochester was teaching "Ethnic and Gender Studies." When Litkouhi asked the school for the records, they gave her a lesson plan and informed her if she wanted more she would need to send public records requests.
The mom sent requests for months but received denials that the records she was requesting did not exist, she told Fox News Digital.
"They've been avoiding sending responses to other parents, too, but they use other kinds of tactics, like they were charging people these exorbitant fees for information," she said.
"In fact, before the lawsuit was filed, Rochester Community Schools had provided or made available the requested materials which were knowingly in its possession," the district told Fox News in a statement. "An invitation was also extended to allow the requesting party an opportunity to arrange an in-person review of any copyrighted works responsive to the FOIA request, consistent with our obligations to the copyright holders under applicable law. The requesting party has not scheduled a time to review the copyrighted materials."
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Litkouhi sued the district about the matter.
As for what parents should know about these requests, her attorney, Steve Delie, said, "Every state has a freedom of information law and parents… should remember these are public records – these are all of our records. And we should be able to access them. And if they find barriers to that, they should look for legal representation that can help them out."
Read more of this story on FOX News.