MMSD parents file open records requests after they say district leaders ignore concerns

Imagine being a parent worried for your child’s safety and not being able to get more information from staff about what’s going on.
Published: Mar. 26, 2023 at 10:15 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - Imagine being a parent worried for your child’s safety and not being able to get more information from staff about what’s going on. That’s the reality one Madison mom says she has lived for more than 11 months. And she’s not alone.

“As a parent we entrust the school, these people in leadership positions, to care for our children, to ensure they’re safe to ensure they’re in a good environment,” said Amy Ryan.

That trust for Ryan is now broken. She says the Madison Metropolitan School District gave her the run around when she had concerns for her kids’ safety at school. Ryan says she tried emailing her questions and setting up meetings with staff. Still she says her questions went unanswered.

“It’s frustrating as a parent to not get a response and to feel like my family didn’t matter,” said Ryan.

With options running out, Ryan filed an open records request, a formal ask afforded to the public by law for information from government and other taxpayer funded entities like MMSD.

Wisconsin’s Department of Justice has guidelines for how long it should take for open records to be complete. They estimate ten days is a reasonable amount of time to get a response. More than 10 months have gone by though, and Ryan still has not gotten a response from her records request.

“It’s disappointing, if I had to summarize it in one word. I expect the best in our district,” said Ryan.

Long time MMSP parent Jim Zellmer filed an open records request to find out how much MMSD was spending on literacy programs.

“My wife and I have been involved in early literacy issues for many years,” said Zellmer.

Ten months after submitting his request, he got some files back, but he says MMSD didn’t give him everything he requested.

“Well, certainly the numbers don’t match,” said Zellmer.

And then there’s Bianca Gomez, the Co-Executive Director of Madison’s Freedom, Inc., a non profit that advocates for women, Queer folks and young people.

“In November of 2021, we submitted a records request around surveillance of young people and budgets associated with surveillance,” said Gomez.

A months long wait slowly turned into over a year.

“We finally got a response in January of 2023,” said Gomez. “You have a legal responsibility to complete and respond to open records requests in a timely manner, and you not doing that is causing further tension and confusion and mistrust with community.

Some cases of overdue open records have turned into legal battles.

Tom Kamenick is a Wisconsin open records attorney. Right now he is representing a local group suing the district for not turning over records for more than a year. It’s one of at least two open cases against the district claiming violations of open record law.

“I think [MMSD] they’re the worst offender that I have seen in the state right now,” said Kamenick.

The most recent lawsuit against the Madison Metropolitan School District was filed Friday, March 24, 2023 by the district’s own head of communications Tim LeMonds. Using a preliminary injunction motion, LeMonds is asking the court to stop the district’s legal team from releasing documents to a Madison TV station, a process that could cost tens of thousands of dollars in personal legal fees.

At MMSD’s State of the District address attended by hundreds of teachers, school board members, the mayor and members of the public, NBC15 Investigates tried getting answers about the lack of transparency from Superintendent Dr. Carlton Jenkins. We were blocked by MMSD’s communications manager Tim LeMonds. The ineffective communication from the district’s head of communications himself went on for almost 12 minutes.

The story of MMSD’s extreme delays on open records requests is all too familiar to NBC15 Investigates. Right now the oldest request we have out will be one year old at the beginning of April 2023. Some of the reasons the district has given us for taking so long are that they are having staffing issues, they answer the requests in the order in which they are filed and that there has been an increase in public record submissions over the past few years.

Open records obtained by NBC15 Investigates shows that is not the case. The data MMSD’s legal team sent us shows the opposite.

2019- 185 records received, 72 completed

2020- 107 records received, 87 completed

2021- 139 records received, 100 completed

2022- 74 records received, 26 completed

MMSD has yet to agree to an on camera interview with NBC15 Investigates to talk about transparency. But in the meantime, the fight for transparency continues.

“Every family matters every kid matters, and we should be listened to,” said Ryan.

“It needs to be a priority, and I hope that they improve,” said Zellmer.

“When they don’t respond, it makes you feel like they’re hiding something,” said Gomez.

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