This post has been updated.

San Diego Unified School District will soon erase emails older than one year under new policies unanimously approved by school board trustees Tuesday night.

District officials may also wipe away older emails that journalists and members of the public are currently seeking through the California Public Records Act.

When the deletions will take place is not clear. No deletion date was announced, nor has the district’s legal team made any assurances that emails already being sought under Public Records Act requests will still be produced.

“We cannot guarantee that all of them will be completed by that date,” legal specialist Jeffrey Day wrote in a June 13 email, referring to staff’s original plan to delete nearly all emails older than six months on July 1 without a board vote or public discussion.

That the district might allow emails to disappear that were requested weeks and months before the new policy was enacted could subvert the very laws enacted to ensure the public can examine the conduct of public officials doing public business.

State law requires public agencies to respond to requests for public records within 10 days, and in unusual circumstances they can extend that response time by 14 days – though the district routinely takes much longer for even the simplest requests. If records cannot be immediately produced, the California attorney general advises agencies to provide them “within a reasonable period of time.” With some exceptions, public records include “any writing containing information relating to the conduct of the public’s business prepared, owned, used, or retained by any state or local agency regardless of physical form or characteristics.”

If the emails aren’t retained by the district, it doesn’t have to make them public, the thinking goes.

The policy will impact anyone who asks for email records from the district, from local citizens to businesses and media outlets.

Voice of San Diego, for example, requested on April 5 budget-related emails sent in 2016 that may shed light on how much district officials knew about a looming $124 million budget deficit that left the district spinning earlier this year as employee ranks and programs were slashed to cut costs. District officials said they would produce those emails to VOSD on July 21, 15 weeks after they were requested.

Neither Day nor general counsel Andra Donovan has responded to repeated requests for the emails since Friday.

The district has yet to make a clear case for why the email deletions are suddenly and urgently needed, though officials have vaguely referenced millions of dollars in email storage costs. But those amounts appear to include all document and data storage districtwide – not just email.

Donovan articulated a couple more motives for the change Tuesday: security and burdensome public records requests.

“What we are asking and directing is that records not be retained on district email servers in individual accounts, which is not a secure place to maintain emails and that we purge our servers of things that are considered not records,” Donovan said. The change will help make sure “we don’t get barraged with requests that we have to go through 30,000 emails or 60,000 emails or 6,000 emails that are really not even records,” she said.

Though school board president Richard Barrera said last month he believed the district shouldn’t delete emails previously sought under the state’s open records law, no such requirement was built into Tuesday’s approval, and no discussion on the topic took place.

Board trustees also did not respond to concerns relayed publicly at Tuesday’s school board meeting by journalist Kelly Davis, representing the San Diego chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, that lengthy record response times will combine with the new policy to prevent access to public records.

The concern is the district – which sometimes takes a year to respond to requests – will drag its feet on requests until the emails in question have been deleted under the one-year retention policy. Trustees also ignored a request by the local journalists’ group to keep emails for two years instead of one, which would be in keeping with the policies of several large school districts across the state.

According to a presentation posted but not shared at the board meeting, the district received 273 records requests in 2015-16 and 321 requests in 2016-17.

“Records storage” or “data storage” reportedly cost $10 million total between 2009 and 2013 for “servers and related hardware” and another $6 million to $11 million in costs are expected for an upcoming “server refresh.”

Trustee John Lee Evans asked staff to come back with a report in six months to show the impact the policy change had on public records processing.

Update: An attorney for the group San Diegans for Open Government sent San Diego Unified a notice of intent to sue Wednesday afternoon, claiming the district’s actions violate the law. See the letter here.

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

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