EDITORIAL: Creating havoc not the purpose of open records

Nov. 22—The more light shed on the operations of public officials, government entities and others in power, the better the public knows how it is being served.

For journalists, fighting for access to public information is a regular part of the job. And an important one.

That being said, recent requests for public information from some Minnesota school districts look like an effort to burden them with a task that isn't meant to shed light.

The requests appear to be intended to embolden groups trying to make schools continually run the gauntlet when it comes to trying to be places that recognize and educate about diversity, inclusion and equity.

In the Owatonna district, the United Patriots for Accountability recently made the largest public data request the district has ever seen, the human resources director told the Owatonna People's Press. The group sought to access 33 different articles of data, including several keywords in correspondences.

The district employee filling the request estimated the initial search would equate to more than 900,000 documents and more than 2 million pages. Not surprisingly, she also said the requested deadline of 35 days was not enough time to complete the task.

In Rochester, a group called Equality in Education submitted a large data request to Rochester Public Schools, asking for documents, curriculum, emails, text messages and social media posts that may relate to the contentious topics, the Post-Bulletin reported.

The data request itself is 41 pages long and asks for a substantial volume of material from every school building in the district.

By now, everyone is familiar with the controversy tied to public schools being accused of teaching critical race theory, which is a decades-old university level research topic. Minnesota education standards do not include CRT.

Even knowing that, some groups are pushing against attempts to teach students anything having to do with racial equity and apparently have strategized to further their agendas by bogging down schools with the data requests.

In the Owatonna request, the following keywords or phrases were included: white fragility, 1619 Project, Black Lives Matter, climate survey, mini-race riot, A People's History of the United States, Ibram X. Kendi, Robin DiAngelo, critical race theory, antiracism, white supremacy, whiteness, white privilege, ethic studies, systemic racism, institutional racism, Network Improvement Comm. Inc. and courageous conversations.

The Rochester data request is not focused only on CRT either. It also asks for material related to other topics such as equity, social justice, cultural competency, race and intersectionality. Part of the request asks for curriculum "with a sociological or cultural theme, (or) any courses with a curriculum that includes a discussion of current events."

That's casting a really wide net in this fishing expedition.

The Owatonna district's human resources director said in the six weeks it took to compile and make necessary redactions to the documents of only the first four keywords, accumulated costs were about $14,000 in labor alone and the total cost of just the keyword searches could amount to nearly $100,000. She said she didn't know yet how much the remaining portions of the request will cost.

So even though the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act gives everyone the right to make requests, it doesn't mean all requests are always responsible or reasonable.

This newspaper's previous data requests of various government entities were usually handled in a one- or two-page letter, not a packet of 30-40 pages.

The data practices law has served the public well in most cases. But likely politically motivated, overreaching demands that are designed to bury school districts in the process of trying to fulfill them hurts everyone by soaking up time and public money better spent serving students.

And in reaction, if local government entities try to change the law to limit public access and succeed, legitimate and reasonable requests will be affected.

And that will surely hurt the public, which means all of us.