Open Records Roadblock: MMSD takes over 6 months to reply to NBC15 Investigates open records request

Open records attorney Tom Kamenick says the only reason a request would take this long is that the district is not making public records a priority.
Open records attorney Tom Kamenick says the only reason a request would take this long is that the district is not making public records a priority.
Published: Sep. 15, 2022 at 9:53 PM CDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - NBC15 Investigates has been fighting for months to learn more about certain leadership shifts within the Madison Metropolitan School District. It’s a matter of public record, an open records request we filed with the district that’s taken more than six months for a response.

We asked for public emails and texts from four district employees using specific key words to learn more about Sean Leavy was reassigned after serving as East High School’s principal. The request has taken so long to complete, it isn’t just about the emails anymore. It’s about your tax dollars, accountability, and your right to know.

We followed the chain of command; filing an open records request by sending an email to MMSD back on March 9, 2022. This request was prompted by a number of fights at the school and student lead walk-outs followed by the reassignment of then Principal Leavy to a different position in central office.

Two months after submitting the open records request, NBC15 Investigates got a reply from the MMSD email address saying due to a “high volume of requests” they didn’t have answers yet.

During the more than six months of waiting for a response, Leavy moved from the central office to a different principal position at Capital High School. Now he’s no longer employed by MMSD. And we still don’t know what caused three job title changes in less than a year.

“The school district has an obligation to provide records as soon as practicable and without delay. I don’t think its meeting that obligation,” Wisconsin’s Freedom of Information Council President Bill Lueders said.

Lueders says the school district taking six months and blaming a backlog of records is a violation of Wisconsin open records laws.

Wisconsin open records attorney Tom Kamenick agrees.

“It’s ridiculous. There is no records request that should take 6 months to fulfill,” Kamenick added.

Kamenick fights for the release of public information when an entity is dragging its feet.

“How is anybody supposed to learn what’s going on in a timely manner, report on what’s going on in a timely manner when it takes months and months to fulfill a basic simple records request about an issue that was probably very pertinent and timely when the request was made and has, I’m sure, lost some of its intrinsic value as something to report on now?” Kamenick asked.

NBC15 Investigates wanted to get Kamenick’s opinion as to whether the district’s delay was reasonable.

“I’ve taken a look at your request, and they’re minimal. That’s the kind of request that can be done in literally an hour or two of work. The only reason it would ever take this long is they’re not making this a priority,” Kamenick said.

NBC15 Investigates asked MMSD’s spokesperson Tim LeMonds how many employees the school pays to handle open records requests. LeMonds says the entire district has “one dedicated staff member responsible.”

“Apparently that’s not enough. This is a multimillion dollar operation funded by taxpayer dollars. They find money for a lot of things. They need to find money to allow them to respond to records requests to respond in a statutorily appropriate timeframe,” Lueders said.

Through other public records, NBC15 Investigates learned MMSD’s proposed revenue for the 2022-2023 school year is $557,477,852.

“The proper response would be to hire additional staff,” Lueders continued.

NBC15 Investigates has two other open records requests submitted to MMSD that have not been submitted as of September 15, 2022. One request is to learn more about what happened internally with the nor former West High School football coach Art Bonomie’s resignation after coaches, parents and students questioned his character and credibility. As of September 15, that request is 164 days old. The other request is NBC15 Investigates’ attempt to learn more about the backlog of records the school cites as a reason requests take so long. That request is 99 days old as of September 15.

Kamenick says Wisconsin’s open records law needs to be changed to be more specific on timelines for record releases. Right now the law states response must be provided “as soon as practicable and without delay.” Other states have more strict time limits. For example, open records requests in Arkansas must be processed within three business days. Illinois public records have five days to process. In Indiana, the cap is seven days, while Iowa’s limit is 20. MMSD took 187 days to process NBC15 Investigates request.

NBC15 reached out to MMSD four times to ask for an on camera interview to find out more about their process of fulfilling records and to ask why it took them more than six months to reply to our request. MMSD spokesperson Tim LeMonds has refused an on camera interview so far.

In an email LeMonds wrote, “With respect to our very limited staff resources and time availability as we work to support our schools in the midst of unprecedented staff shortages, I do not see the coordination of an on-camera interview a necessary step in providing answers to your questions about MMSD’s public record request process.”