Illustration by Adriana Heldiz

Remember that time 500 Advanced Placement tests at Scripps Ranch High were invalidated because students were sitting too close together? Or that time San Diego Unified wanted to delete all emails older than six months without a vote of the school board or public discussion?

Yeah. Neither did we – and to be honest, nothing could be further from our minds right now or less timely as the world confronts the coronavirus and its impacts.

But records of those incidents sought by Voice of San Diego in 2018 and 2017, respectively, were released by San Diego Unified this month. They are just the latest examples of the excruciating delays displayed by the region’s largest school district in complying with the California Public Records Act, which generally requires public agencies to respond to records requests within 10 days, plus another 14 days in extraordinary circumstances.

San Diego Unified is also one of many public agencies across the region that began putting off public records requests indefinitely during the COVID-19 emergency, even though nothing in state law has changed and the district continues to operate remotely as teachers shift to distance learning.

“Timelines have been suspended during the period when we are closed, per state and local guidelines. Any transmissions received during the period of closure will be deemed received on the date upon which the District officially reopens,” an out-of-office message from Jeff Day, the district’s legal specialist who handles Public Records Act requests, says.

A lawsuit between Voice of San Diego and the district over its routine public records delays is ongoing. VOSD and other members of the public regularly wait months or years for even the narrowest requests. (For instance, San Diego Unified took 207 days to respond to a simple request for staffing numbers. It took Los Angeles Unified 15 days to respond to the same request.)

But one category of records appears to be on a fast track with the district’s legal office: construction-related requests that do not come from the media.

An online portal where San Diego Unified began posting records request documents shows 93 of the last 100 responses contain simple contractor information, like license numbers, subcontractor lists, inspector logs and construction bids.

Just a handful of replies – seven out of the latest 100 – cover a variety of topics, from school attendance feeder patterns to emails regarding Lincoln High’s registrar’s office.

The dominance of contractor-type records raises a question: Has the district’s records department become primarily a service for contractors, and the rest of the public gets pushed to the back of the line for months and sometimes years?

No, said San Diego Unified spokeswoman Maureen Magee.

“All PRAs are handled through the Legal Department. They are all responded to within ten days. Documents produced in response to construction-related requests typically do not require legal review or redaction and, therefore, often can be produced more quickly,” Magee wrote in an email. “Other requests (including media requests) typically involve legal review of the documents being produced, which takes more time. Any requests (including non-construction-related requests) that do not require in depth legal review or redaction, also go out more quickly.”

“If there’s a fast track for certain types of requesters, that’s problematic,” said David Snyder, executive director of the Bay Area-based nonprofit First Amendment Coalition. “It would suggest the school district is devoting resources to a special group of people …They should be devoting resources to everyone equitably.”

Snyder also took exception to the district’s delay responding to VOSD’s requests from 2018 and 2017.

“The kind of delay you experienced is ridiculous and deeply troubling,” said Snyder. “In some ways, delay of access is denial of access. Information that is desired today is much less valuable later.” The California Public Records Act allows “the public to understand what its government is doing now, not what it was doing years ago. … Promptness is a key requirement.”

Magee said she did not have new data on the district’s average turnaround time for records requests overall, or for requests from those seeking construction-related documents.

A Voice of San Diego analysis of nearly three years’ worth of Public Records Act responses in 2017 found the district spent an average of 80 days to provide records – and 110 days for media requests.

The quality of the district’s records searches has also been a source of concern in the past – perhaps none with greater implications than a request for complaints and investigative records about a now-retired La Jolla High School teacher long known for inappropriately touching female students.

For years, San Diego Unified officials said they did not have records showing complaints against the teacher, but later said they found a box of documents while responding to a subpoena from the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing indicating the teacher possibly committed a crime by grabbing a student years before his retirement in 2017. The teacher lost his teaching credential for misconduct last year, and former students have sued the district for their inaction.

And there have been records withheld by the district over the years improperly, like those about the scandal that enveloped then-school board member Marne Foster the district was ultimately ordered to release by a judge after a lawsuit by Voice of San Diego.

A trial in Voice of San Diego’s current case against San Diego Unified over records delays is scheduled for Sept. 4. The district settled part of the case in 2018 by agreeing to keep emails at least two years, but the agreement only lasts five years.

Maya Srikrishnan contributed to this report.

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

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