Wednesday, October 5, 2016

A Decisive Victory for Citizens Enforcing the Public Records Law

The most recent episode in the battle to require John White and our Louisiana Department of Education to comply with the Louisiana Public Records Law was decided today in the 19th Judicial District Court by Judge Janice Clark. Here is The Advocate article describing the decision. The decision once again declared that data suppression tactics imposed by our LDOE were in violation of the Louisiana Public Records Law. The LDOE agreed to three stipulations settling the lawsuit by John White and the LDOE against Michael Deshotels and Dr James Finney as follows:

  • "The suppression of data in the economically disadvantaged and English Learner (ELL) or English proficiency sub-groups of the Louisiana Department of Education Multi-stat reports is not in compliance with the Louisiana Public Records Act.
  • The Louisiana Department of Education shall not suppress student enrollment data in responding to requests made under the Louisiana Public Records Act.
  • The data regarding the economically disadvantaged and English language learner (ELL) or English proficiency sub-groups of the Louisiana Department of Education Multi-stat reports will be made available to the public back to 2006 pursuant to the Louisiana Public Records Act."
Since the LDOE has signed on to the above stipulations they are waiving any opportunity to appeal this decision. This matter should now be settled permanently for this type of records request. We will also suggest that the documents be made available on the LDOE web site for anyone to access.

I want to personally thank my attorney Mr J. Arthur Smith III, and Dr Finney's attorney, Mr Chris Shows for their excellent work in presenting our case in this important matter.

I also want to express my sincere appreciation and gratitude to the Baton Rouge civic group, Leaders With Vision headed by president Jean Armstrong for providing generous financial support for me and Dr. Finney in defending our rights and the rights of other citizens in this important case.

This case was in my opinion an attack on citizens' rights by John White and his department because he sued me and Dr. Finney just for having the nerve to request public records. The original lawsuit against us proposed that if we challenged the LDOE's suppression of data and information, we would be assessed all legal and court costs in prosecuting the case. This initial demand was retracted as I understand based upon objections to such tactics by unanimous consent of all BESE members. We thank the BESE members for also standing up for citizens's rights.

The pretense for this lawsuit was a claim by White and the Department that some parts of the data requested may compromise the privacy rights of students as required by FERPA through some obscure data manipulations. The LDOE also claimed that they had been warned by the U.S. Department of Education that Louisiana may be in danger of losing federal funding if such data was not suppressed. This claim is now conclusively proved to be bogus because the U.S. Department of Education makes exactly this type of data available on its own web site. I have in my possession a copy of the data sample downloaded from the U.S. Dept. web site only this morning, if ever anyone questions this point. The only problem is that much of the data is outdated because of the time delay in publishing the information.

Dr Finney and I as defendants in the case could still be left owing significant legal fees unless the judge orders the LDOE to reimburse us for all legal fees. That motion is being made by our attorneys and remains to be ruled upon by the judge.

I want also to express the following personal opinion regarding this unnecessary expense of public and private funds in the courts. I believe the entire motivation for this action against me and Dr. Finney was never about clarifying the legal issues relative to certain public records with proper consideration of student privacy matters as was claimed by John White.  I believe it was purely an attempt to discourage citizens from seeking to independently research the claims and conclusions made by White and his staff. If citizens are forced to face legal challenges and high legal fees for seeking public records, the Department can continue to manipulate and spin what should be factual information about the operation of our schools.

Now because of this landmark ruling it is my sincere hope that the letter and spirit of the Public Records Law will be complied with and no further lawsuits will be necessary.