What Is the Acceptable School Response Time to Public Records Requests
When an public educational entity receives a public records request, how much time does it have to comply? A public records requestor will sometimes include in the request a demand that the requested records be prepared and provided to the requestor “by the close of business” or on a specific date (usually within a business week). So, what is the school response time to public records requests?
Arizona Revised Statutes (“A.R.S.”) §39-121.01(D)(1) states that the custodian of public records “shall promptly furnish such copies, printouts, or photographs.” If the custodian of records fails to deliver the records “promptly”, the public records request will be deemed denied. In such a case, the public school may or may not incur liability relating to the denial.
This brings us back to the matter of whether or not the custodian of records must comply with a “date certain” demand by the public records requestor. A.R.S. §39-121.01(D)(1) does not require a response by a specific date or a date demanded by the public records requestor, it merely requires a “prompt” response.
The determination of what is considered a “prompt” response is not an exact science. Rather, “promptness” is a factual determination, based upon multiple factors such as the accessibility of the records, the volume of the material requested, and the need to redact confidential information from the requested records.
For example, if a public records requestor were to request “all emails” for a particular employee, the scope of the records request would span every email that employee has sent or received during his or her tenure with the public school. School personnel would be required to collate every email ever sent or received by the employee, review each email to determine if it contains any confidential information exempt from public disclosure, and then redact all privileged and/or confidential information.
Obviously, the steps outlined above could be quite time consuming due to the broad nature of the request. To determine the “promptness” of the school’s response in the above example, all factors going into the preparation of the records must be considered. In this example that means that the amount of time to collate potentially thousands of emails, the time to read each email, the time to identify privileged and/or confidential information, the time to redact, and finally the time to actually produce the copies all contribute to a longer period of time expended between the initial request and the final production of the records being considered “prompt.” In the above example a response time of one to two months could be deemed prompt.
If it is anticipated that the preparation of records in response to a public records request will be delayed, it is best practice to advise the requestor of the delay and the reason for it. When contacting a public records requestor to advise him or her that there will be a delay in preparing the records, school personnel could take that opportunity to determine if the requestor is willing to narrow the scope of the records requested. By narrowing the scope of the request to what it is exactly that the public records requestor is looking for, the burden on the public school is lessened and the requestor will likely be provided with a faster, and more targeted, response to the public records request.
If the records requested are more discrete and easily accessible, a shorter period of time for a final production of records may be considered “prompt.” Returning to the example above, if after contacting the public records requestor the school district is able to obtain a more narrowed request, such as “all emails for employee between May 5th and May 6th of 2013”, then the amount of time spent collating, reviewing, redacting, and copying will be much shorter than in the initial version of the request. In this instance, a month to two months for a final production of records would most likely not be considered a “prompt” response, but a response time of one to two weeks most likely would.
A public school’s responsibility under State of Arizona Public Records laws rest solely with the public school. Unreasonable delays attributable to poor records management, a failure to immediately address the public records request, a third party failing in its responsibility to provide or copy school records, or lack of available staff to address the request does not relieve the public school of its responsibilities to respond to the public records request.
Public records requests can present unique factual issues that often require careful and individualized consideration. It is highly recommended that a public educational entity immediately consult with its legal counsel upon receipt of a public records request so that an appropriate decision can be made regarding what must or must not be disclosed in what time frame.
This blog should be used for informational purposes only. It does not create an attorney-client relationship with any reader and should not be construed as legal advice. If you need legal advice regarding School Response Time to Public Records Requests, or any other estate planning matters, please feel free to contact at 480.461.5300, log on to udallshumway.com, or contact an attorney in your area. Udall Shumway PLC is located in Mesa, Arizona and is a full service law firm. We assist Individuals, families, businesses, schools and municipalities in Mesa and the Phoenix/East Valley.