San Diego Unified School District plans to purge nearly all email messages older than 6 months on July 1. It may do so before the public or school board even has a chance to weigh in.

The district’s change to its record retention policy may also wipe out old emails that were requested under the California Public Records Act long before the policy went into effect, according to the district’s legal office.

Voice of San Diego is still waiting for certain budget-related emails sent in 2016 that may reveal what district leadership knew about the impending multimillion-dollar shortfall that left roughly a thousand employees without a job next year.

The district is scheduled to produce those emails by July 21, 14 weeks after they were requested, but Jeffrey Day, a legal specialist for San Diego Unified, said there’s no guarantee that will still occur.

“Public Records Act requests received prior to June 8, 2017 have been submitted to our Integrated Technologies Support Services Department. June 8, 2017 was the date the new Email Retention Policy was announced. The Integrated Technologies Support Services Department is doing their best to make sure that all the requests get processed prior to the transition, however we cannot guarantee that all of them will be completed by that date,” Day wrote.

On Friday, San Diegans for Open Government made a public records request for all emails set to be deleted. The group said it believes it would be illegal for the district to begin deleting messages on July 1.

District officials say the shift to keeping only 6 months’ worth of emails is motivated by exorbitant storage costs, and that the new timeframe is longer than some municipalities, like Carlsbad and Poway.

District spokeswoman Jennifer Rodriguez said in an email the district is “currently spending millions of dollars on server space to store email exchanges,” and without action “the district is facing over a million dollars in new storage expenses this fall.”

But Rodriguez later confirmed the district uses free email programs offered by Gmail and Microsoft Office 365. “We utilize both free and cost options,” she said, but did not immediately respond to additional questions Friday.

Greg Ottinger, the district’s executive director of information technology, told media partner NBC San Diego this week the district fields more than 60 million emails a year.

“Unless we make a change, we are going to have to spend significantly more taxpayer dollars on bigger and bigger storage pieces versus redirecting those dollars towards the classrooms,” he said.

He was not concerned that important information would be lost due to the policy change.

“Email really should not be where you are transmitting sensitive information to people, because it is just email,” he said.

The district’s email deletion announcement on June 8 gave employees less than one month notice to comply. A representative for the district’s teachers union told NBC San Diego it would prefer the district keep emails for one year, and postpone the change until September to give employees more time.

Nonetheless, the district plans to move full-speed ahead with the change.

“These new administrative procedures will be implemented effective July 1, 2017 pursuant to the Superintendent’s authority to do so, and will be ratified by the Board of Education at a public meeting shortly thereafter, on a date to be determined,” wrote district general counsel Andra Donovan June 9 in a letter to the nonprofit Californians Aware obtained by NBC San Diego.

That means the district will start deleting emails first, and let the board vote on the decision later.

“The Superintendent has the authority to approve a procedure at any time; the Board can ratify at a later time,” Rodriguez wrote in an email. “There is the possibility the item could go to the board on June 27, but likely it will be brought forth sometime in July. There is no earlier board action or discussion planned at this time.”

Existing district policy outlines what student records need to be kept, but Rodriguez said a new policy “will outline more clearly what district records must be retained.”

“The new policy will outline what records need to be saved. Many of the emails currently on our servers do not rise to the level of ‘record’ as the term is defined by law.”

Another district procedure currently on the books says all district emails “are archived and subject to disclosure under public records law and eDiscovery.”

At least one school board member hopes the board can discuss the change before it is made.

“I am speaking as one board member. I would like to see it discussed on the June 27 board agenda,” said board president Richard Barrera when reached by phone this week. “I’m certainly going to express that we would like to agendize an item for board discussion before there is implementation of a policy change.”

Barrera said he can’t comment on the 6-month timeframe proposed, “without knowing best practices… Why do some agencies do a year? Why do some agencies do three months?”

“It feels like this is a work in progress. We haven’t had much brought to us really,” he said.

He also said the district should rethink what it does with old emails that have already been requested by the public but that haven’t been released.

“I certainly believe there should be no email deleted that is contained in a public records request,” he said.

“I think the policy has to safeguard against sensitive emails being deleted,” Barrera said. “What happens when, let’s say, somebody not following a district directive has chosen to delete an email that could be the subject of an investigation and some form of wrongdoing, what happens then?”

The agenda for the June 27 board meeting will be released no later than June 23 at 5 p.m.

Ashly McGlone

Ashly is a freelance investigative reporter. She formerly worked as a staff reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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