School districts fail access test

Student says officials need lesson in state open-records statute

MISSOURI -- It started out as just another school project, but 15-year-old Lindsay Rhodes soon turned the tables by using her critical thinking class assignment to put local school districts to the test.

And what the Liberty Junior High School freshman learned was that district administrators may need to devote some extra study hall hours to working on their compliance with state open-records laws.

Rhodes wanted to test local school districts to measure their compliance with the Missouri Sunshine Law, which she researched for her project. She discovered that agencies are obligated to provide documents requested under the law within three business days and cannot force the person making the request to say why he or she is asking for the records.

Rhodes sent letters to 22 school districts in the Kansas City suburbs of Clay, Platte and Johnson counties requesting contracts for the head football and volleyball coaches in those districts. She also asked for copies of financial records showing the budgets for the football and volleyball teams, information that should be available to the public under state laws.

But only eight school districts even responded to her request, and Rhodes said none were fully compliant with the law.

She received all the information she requested from the Grandview School District, but not within the required time limits set forth in Missouri state law. The other seven school districts that responded either gave limited information in their response letters but provided no documents, or provided some but not all of the requested copies.

Only six of the 22 school districts responded within the required three-day time limit and Rhodes' own district, the Liberty School District-whose school board paid a $22,705 settlement in a Sunshine Law lawsuit in 1998-did not reply at all. Rhodes said the district had agreed as part of the settlement to ensure future compliance with the law.

"Because of all the publicity about the Liberty School Board lawsuit and all the money the school district had to pay, I thought for sure that they would comply with the law. But they did not," she said in her report.

As for the records showing the budgets of the school districts' football and volleyball programs, Rhodes received only two. She said she thinks the public's right to access that type of information epitomizes the need for open-records laws.

"How else could you find out if your school was spending the same amount of money on boy's sports as they are on girl's sports?" Rhodes said in her report.

Rhodes said she thinks part of the reason for the lack of response was that the school districts may have thought they were not obligated to divulge financial records from their athletic programs.

"My test showed that many school districts either don't know about their obligations under the Sunshine Law, or don't care," Rhodes said. "I think that should change. Our government needs to step up and make the necessary changes to educate governmental officials about the law and to put some teeth into the law."

Although Rhodes may be the student, she said she thinks local school districts should learn a lesson from her findings.

"I feel that as a student, our schools should be practicing what they are teaching and abiding by the laws of Missouri," Rhodes said. "I feel that they need to become more educated on the subject and make sure that they comply completely next time."

Officials from the Liberty School District did not return calls made to their offices by the Report.

Fall 2000, reports