School officials puzzled by state records request

By Bethany Knipp

At least two area schools have received a mysterious open records request asking for information about politicos who have been invited to school events during the past three years.

Rock Creek and Riley County school districts received the request on Aug. 21. The request, citing the Kansas Open Records Act, came from the Kansas Legislative Research Department, which sometimes makes requests from lawmakers.

The requester’s information is confidential, however, as a longstanding rule of the research department.

“We are required to keep all requests confidential,” Martha Dorsey, an analyst from the research department said. Dorsey could also not confirm or deny that such a request had been sent, but the Kansas Association of School Boards did, having received inquiries from school districts about the request.

“They wanted any invitations to political candidates, which of course would require a fairly lengthy investigation,” Rock Creek Superintendent Darrel Stufflebeam said.

Stufflebeam said that his district did not have anything to submit to the research department because it didn’t make any invitations from its central office, and KORA doesn’t require entities to submit records not already maintained.

“There are no invitations that I’m aware of,” Stufflebeam said. “I’ve never invited anyone.”

He said the only political invitations he could think of would be from the Rock Creek Education Association, which occassionally invites candidates over during election season, something the Rock Creek central office has no control over and for which there is no record, he said.

Specifically, the request asks for “all invitations (written, electronic, or by telephone) to elected officials in or candidates for the State Legislature, the State Board of Education, or any statewide elective office, made by employees or board members of the school district.”

It asks for invitations between Aug.1, 2011 through Aug. 22, 2014, requesting those records to be turned over as soon as possible.

Stufflebeam said for those dates the records would be unreliable.

“We’d be going by people’s memories,” Stufflebeam said.

Furthermore, the request asks for records from a five-week period from Aug. 23 through Sept. 30. Lastly, it asks for Oct. 1 through Nov. 3 records to be submitted on Nov. 5.

Donna Whiteman, the KASB’s general counsel, said that there’s no information in KORA that requires continuing records submissions as made in the request.

Those dates also have some wondering if the request was politically motivated.

“What I think is unusual about this is the timing,” Whiteman said.

That’s because, she said, the request asks for information from election season. She also said the timing was odd because it’s the beginning of the school year when school employees are busiest.

“I don’t really concern myself with the motivation behind those requests,” Stufflebeam said. “We just try to cooperate as much as we can.”

The Riley County school district also got a request.

Superintendent Brad Starnes said he handed over only email exchanges between him and politicos. Those were the only records he had, he said.

Gathering those took less than 15 minutes, so Starnes said there was no charge for time.

He said candidates are usually invited to school board meetings to talk about legislative matters.

He also said to gather anything other than emails would have been “difficult and cumbersome to try to have accurate information.”

In the Manhattan-Ogden district, Superintendent Bob Shannon said that the research department had not sent a request to his knowledge.

If it had, Shannon said the district invited elected officials to a school board meeting at the beginning of the legislative session.

It also invited legislators to dedications of bond construction projects, an adult education graduation ceremony,  and Gov. Sam Brownback came when Woodrow Wilson Elementary won the 2013 Governor’s Achievement Award.

The Wamego and Junction City school districts did not return phone calls asking if they had received requests.

Whiteman said it’s unclear how many districts got requests. The KASB office originally thought about 50 did, Whiteman said.

But she said others spoke of additional lists.

“It the strangest KORA request I’ve ever seen,” Stufflebeam said.

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