State report finds Howard County schools violated public information law in some cases

A state report released Friday afternoon by the state's public access ombudsman found the Howard County Public School System did not follow Maryland's public information law in some cases.

Ordered by the General Assembly following mounting complaints from residents that Howard school officials mishandled requests, the report found most of the more than 200 requests the ombudsman reviewed between July 2012 and 2015 were properly handled.

But in some egregious cases, the school system unlawfully denied or appeared to deliberately thwart requests for information, particularly in response to requests for a controversial $300,000 study undertaken by District Management Council on special education in Howard schools, according to the report.

The school system withheld the preliminary report from two requestors, and staff told two requestors the report did not exist. After eight months of litigation, the school system released the 13-page preliminary report. At least four central staff members — including the superintendent — confirmed the report's existence, according to the report.

In some cases, staff responded for requests by arguing records did not exist instead of providing the estimated amount of time it would take to produce the records, according to the report.

"When responses to PIA requests are ignored, or otherwise improperly handled, public trust and confidence in government necessarily is diminished," the report concludes.

School system spokesman John White said the report acknowledges progress made since 2012 and indicates the school system is currently complying with public information law.

"We will use the report's findings to ensure access to public records and continuous improvement to the process of responding to information requests," White said.

The investigation found the school system did not grant any fee waiver requests, a practice that the state ombudsman wrote had a "deterrent effect on the requestor pursuing the requested records."

"Many of the complaints likely would have been avoided if HCPSS had communicated with the requestors in greater detail about the cost involved and other options for handling the requests," according to the report.

When media requested information about mold concerns at Glenwood Middle School and other information, the school system denied fee waivers without unclear reasons, increasing the need for more communication between the school system and requestors, according to the report.

The report also found the school system often referred requestors to its website for information, including one instance where the school system referred a requester to review the website of 76 schools for information instead of extracting information from a database.

Schools superintendent Renee Foose has the legal responsibility for responding to public information requests.

The school system received most requests — 43 percent — from individuals. Businesses filed 27 percent of requests while media filed 16 percent.

The public information ombudsman is a new position legislators created law year to mediate disputes regarding information requests.

State Del. Warren Miller, the Republican who proposed the state bill that led to the report, applauded the report's finding, which he said showed the school either ignored the law or deliberately deceived requestors.

This story has been updated.

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