EDITORIAL: Addressing misconceptions about our public records request

We were disappointed to learn at the Nov. 2 School Committee meeting that a public records request the Current had submitted was the “last straw” for teachers who have come to feel that they are under siege.

Before we address misconceptions about the Current’s public records request, it is important to say unequivocally that we have the utmost respect for our  teachers, who have complicated and challenging jobs. The last thing we would want to do is make those jobs more difficult.

The Current has and will continue to highlight and celebrate successes inside the classroom and beyond, that are led by the talented, dedicated educators of Marblehead. Thank you, teachers.

Now, about that request.

Why did the Current file its public records request?

As readers likely know, the School Committee addressed a parent’s formal complaint regarding acting Superintendent Michelle Cresta’s Oct. 12 email expressing solidarity with “Israel and Jewish people around the world.” 

On Oct. 19, the committed voted unanimously that Cresta committed no wrongdoing.

Chair Sarah Fox also remarked on the “weaponization” of the process for reporting bullying, suggesting that the Current had provided a “road map” for people to “punish others who they disagree with” when it published a public, redacted report on the results of a bullying investigation involving a former MHS soccer coach. More on that in a second.

Fox referred to an “increase in complaints against members of our school community” but did not elaborate. We wanted to know — and thought the public might want to know — what she was talking about. So, we filed a public records request seeking more information. 

Had we gotten a substantive response to our records request, we would have used our judgment to determine the most responsible way to share that response with the public, balancing the public’s right to know with valid concerns about privacy and, yes, respect for our teachers.

Importantly, we do not publish every last scrap of information we receive in response to public records requests. For example, when we received disciplinary records of several veteran police officers in response to our public records request to the Marblehead Police Department, we did not report on outdated minor transgressions because on the balance it would have been unfair to the officers whose records have been exemplary since.

In other words, obtaining records through a public records request is just the first step in our process. 

Why did the Current publish details of the soccer coach investigation?

We became interested in the investigation because the School Committee called — and then aborted — an executive session premised on the possible discipline or dismissal of former superintendent John Buckey related to that investigation.

We thought our readers had a right to know the details to understand the School Committee’s decision making. So, we filed a public records request and found out.

Once we had the report in hand, we learned that the state’s anti-bullying law, G.L.c. 71 §37O, places a lot of weight on the subjective experience of complainants and makes the mindset of the alleged “bully” largely irrelevant. 

These aspects of the law led the attorney to find that the coach’s words and actions were “not intentional,” yet they caused “emotional harm” and created a hostile environment for certain players. Under the bullying law, that was enough to substantiate the complaint.  

Sometimes, the purpose of a story in a newspaper is to prompt readers to ask, “Is this the world we want?” No doubt, the Legislature passed the anti-bullying law with the best of intentions. But as our experience in Marblehead shows, legislators may have made it too easy for individuals to trigger the law, imposing certain investigatory obligations on school districts.

If the School Committee chair is suggesting that the Current keep these aspects of the anti-bullying law “our little secret,” then this is an affront to our commitment to transparency. It is also a doomed strategy as a practical matter. Parents talk. They share information. With or without the Current, isn’t it possible that any parent could deploy the tactics with other school personnel?

We do not know what the solution is to that problem. But painting this newspaper as the villain is misplaced.

Does the Current have a history of targeting teachers with public records requests?

In a word, no. Since our launch in June 2022, we have filed 15 public records requests, 14 of which have been directed to the School Department.

Eleven of the 14 — if you include our request for the soccer coach report — related to trying to bring sunlight onto the decision to part ways with Buckey. Others related to the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion work in the schools of resident Henry Turner, and the money Buckey had been spending on communications consulting work, which the School Committee had discussed at several public meetings.

Our most recent request was the first one to reference a teacher in any way.

In his remarks at the School Committee meeting, Marblehead Education Association Co-President Jonathan Heller referred to the district receiving 45 requests or amended requests since July 1. It is evident that the vast majority of those have not come from us.

Heller also referenced $5,640 being spent on legal fees related to public records requests. Lawyers are sometimes called to ensure the appropriate redactions of requested documents, which may be unavoidable.

However, that total also seems to include the cost the district incurred when board members failed to preserve their text messages, as the law requires. While those violations of the law may have been unintentional, the board is responsible for incurring those costs, not the Current.

Heller also referenced the burden responding to public records requests have been imposing on school staff. We would offer that a more effective strategy to reduce this burden is for school officials to reexamine the degree to which they can be more transparent in the first instance.

As noted above, the vast bulk of our public records requests were designed to illuminate an opaque process that led to a consequential (and expensive) decision to part ways with the school superintendent.

We realize that schools regularly deal with sensitive information. But if more information was provided proactively, there would be less of a need for the media and others to rely on the public records law to make formal demands.

What do we wish had happened with our most recent public records request?

On Friday morning, acting Superintendent Michelle Cresta apprised us for the first time that our records request in its original form would require searching 476,899 individual emails to determine whether they contained complaints — information that Heller seemed to already know the night before.

At an average of 15 seconds per email, that task would take nearly 2,000 hours to complete. At a rate of $25 an hour, that would require the district assessing the Current a fee of nearly $50,000.

As should have been obvious, the Current was not seeking to commission such a voluminous and intrusive search. We agree that would not be the best use of school employees’ time (or our money).

Moving forward, if we inadvertently submit overly broad records requests to record keepers, we hope our partners in public service would simply call us and ask, “What are you really looking for? Can we find a way to respond without overburdening our staff?”

The fact that that was not done earlier is particularly regrettable in this instance, as it may have spared our teachers some unnecessary anxiety.

But rather than look backward, we would prefer to chalk this up to a learning opportunity., 

The hopeful part of all this is that we all share a mutual goal: We all want the best for the students in our public schools.

At the School Committee meeting, Heller implored one and all to “end the cycle of mistrust and suspicion,” and we stand ready to do our part on that front.

Our school officials have to realize, though, that if what they are asking is essentially “stop asking so many questions,” we view that prescription as a non-starter. While we will take better care to make our requests more targeted and less burdensome, we will continue to use the public records law to seek answers we believe the public deserves.

The Current Editorial Board
info@marbleheadnews.org | + posts

The members of the Current’s editorial board are Ed Bell, who serves as chairman, and Virginia Buckingham, both members of the Current’s board of directors; Kris Olson and Will Dowd, members of the Current’s editorial staff; and Robert Peck and Joseph P. Kahn. Peck is an attorney, former chairman of Marblehead’s Finance Committee and a former Select Board member. Kahn is a retired Boston Globe journalist.

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