State: Duluth schools shirked data requests
The Duluth school district failed to appropriately respond to a former School Board member's public data request, according to an opinion by the Minnesota Department of Administration.
Art Johnston asked for an advisory opinion from the department regarding data he requested from the district in early March.
The state's data practices division said in an opinion issued Monday that the district failed to notify Johnston that certain data he requested didn't exist; that it didn't explain to him reasons for delays and didn't provide him with any data on at least one of his requests. Regarding a request for data that involved communication about Johnston, the district failed to respond within 10 days, as state statute directs.
Johnston asked for all communication that involved district property and actual and potential property sales since January 2010; all communication regarding two multimillion dollar change orders the district agreed to with long-range facilities plan, or Red Plan, project manager Johnson Controls since 2009; all communication regarding responses to Minnesota Government Data Practices Act requests since 2013 and all communication involving Johnston himself since 2009.
The district notified Johnston it had received his four requests and was evaluating them and gathering data. That was the last he heard, the opinion reads, despite requests for updates.
An attorney for the district told the state that its record retention policy is three years, and requests included communication much older than that. Communication within that three-year period included more than 26,000 documents the district must first review, taking 1,300 staff hours. Attorney Zachary Cronen wrote that Johnston can review documents as they are processed.
State commissioner Matthew Massman wrote that while Johnston's request was for a large amount of data, the district should have continued to communicate with him about it. When requested data is about the requestor, state statute says it should be provided immediately, or within 10 business days, the opinion says.
The district's chief financial officer receives data requests and coordinates responses. At the time of Johnston's requests that was Doug Hasler, who resigned in June after being placed on administrative leave. A district spokeswoman didn't return messages left Tuesday.
Johnston, a longtime outspoken critic of the Red Plan and of the school district, was unseated from the School Board last fall after serving two terms. He said Tuesday he made the requests — and several others he claims have gone unfilled — because "I know too much about the school district to be able to sit and say nothing when I am trying to find the truth."
More information about property offers in the face of an unsold former Central High School and expensive change orders considering the price tag of the Red Plan would serve the public, Johnston said.
Johnston said the state's opinion is an opening for him to take possible legal action. The opinion of the department is non-binding, but would typically be given deference in court.