Howard delegate proposes legislative remedy to school system transparency complaints

In response to constituent complaints about the Howard County Public School System's handling of public records requests, state Del. Warren Miller has drafted a bill intended to increase transparency and accountability in the process.

Miller's legislation would "force a better control and release of information" from the school district to the public, according to the Republican, who represents western Howard County.

"This is meant to be a starting point to have a conversation about our problems with the school system," he said.

A schools spokesperson was not immediately available for comment Monday.

Transparency and access to documents has lately been at the forefront of discussions about the school system in Miller's district, as local parents search for more information about environmental testing and remediation in school buildings where officials have found mold, including Glenwood Middle School, Glenelg High School, Centennial High School, Mount View Middle School and Pointers Run Elementary School.

The bill would add requirements specifically for Howard County public schools to the state's Public Information Act law, which sets the procedure for state and local government bodies responding to public records requests.

Under the legislation, the county school system would be required to consult a court before refusing to release an interagency memorandum, which are sometimes protected from public inquiries. The school system would have to convince a judge there is a valid reason to deny the request.

County school officials would have to go to the state's attorney general to withhold documents under other exceptions to the Public Information Act, if withholding those documents hasn't been approved before.

The bill would also require the school system's public records custodian to sign an oath every time the system determines a requested document doesn't exist. The consequence for lying under oath is perjury, which is a misdemeanor under Maryland law.

Maryland's Public Information Act was updated statewide earlier this year, during the most recent General Assembly session.

In April, state legislators voted to create a public information act compliance board and hire an ombudsman as a mediator for disputes over records. Miller's bill would require the Howard County Public School System to include information about the board and the opportunity for appeal in its response if the school system denies a request.

Miller said the bill was still in draft format, and could be tweaked by the time it comes up for a vote. 

The new General Assembly legislative session begins Jan. 13, 2016.

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