By Seth Henry
This letter was sent to Harwood Unified Union School District (HUUSD) Superintendent Brigid Nease and board chair Christine Sullivan, vice chair Gabe Gilman and others after I requested detailed financial information about district finances and was informed by the board’s attorney that it would take 158.75 hours at a rate of $38.75 per hour totaling $6,151.56, plus $400 in copying fees.
I received this response from district legal counsel to my Freedom of Information (FOI) request submitted November 17. It was not what I expected.
I am taken aback by the massive estimate of labor required to retrieve itemized financial transactions. In my professional capacity I manage a business similar in scale to the Washington West Supervisory Union (WWSU) district that spans three continents. A request for financial information for a few accounts/expense categories can be met within a day or two (maximum) with very little labor. I was under the impression that WWSU runs modern accounting software and undergoes routine financial audits; therefore, I assumed that this process would be as simple as running simple financial reports and isolating the transactions in question. The letter I received does not specifically indicate why meeting this request would be so time intensive for the district other than alluding to the fact that the files required are in storage and must be manually retrieved. I am happy to amend my FOI request to seek the level and type of information that is more readily available, but to do this effectively I would need to better understand the limitations of the accounting systems and controls that the district utilizes. Specifically:
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*Does the district have an accurate electronic chart of accounts to look up expenses by category or vendor?
*For what time period and district entities are electronic records kept and electronically accessible?
*Is the limiting factor access to detailed invoices, meaning expense records (absent invoices) would be easily accessible?
*What financial controls and records are readily available and used by the auditors in sampling and testing the district’s financial controls and systems? In other words, what are the in-situ documents one could use to gain a better understanding of spending patterns by account/category?
I was also surprised to see that the first response to my request was a formal legal letter (actually two versions) from outside legal counsel. My interest here is around understanding spending patterns in our school district; as such I certainly did not intend to incur additional expense for the taxpayers. My inquiry into these spending categories is driven by concerns raised by community members around what is perceived to be extraordinary or growing trends in districtwide spending in these specific areas. Considering that the superintendent has already warned that there will be significant cuts this budget season, that the board has decided to dramatically overhaul budgeting process and controls, that the board has restricted public comment/access and that current student attrition trends will likely further reduce district resources, it is in our community interest to achieve transparency into these matters. Getting the facts on the table is in the best interest of all parties. With this in mind, I would prefer finding the most efficient path to obtaining the information that the public is entitled to rather than creating more work and expense for the district. I believe that this is a matter that deserves attention from the board, not only in that the board should be interested in why basic financial information is so difficult to obtain, but also why FOI requests are met with immediate and expensive involvement from outside counsel.
I hope this communication sheds further light on what information I am seeking and why I am seeking it, and that we can find a more efficient way to honor the spirit of that request, which is entirely in keeping with the board’s recently stated mission of furthering transparency and accountability. Asking a private citizen, through outside legal counsel, to pay over $6,000 to receive basic financial information implies that either this information is being deliberately withheld or that there are significant problems with the administrative function of the district. Either deserves immediate attention from the board. Thank you for your attention to this matter and I look forward to your reply.
Seth Henry lives in Fayston.