Charters’ exorbitant fees hinder efforts to obtain public info

Public Funds for Public Schools #KeepTheCap

Public records requests made to 10 publicly funded Boston charter schools have been thwarted by demands for fees totaling $91,440 from seven of the schools, according to Russ Davis, director of Massachusetts Jobs with Justice and a spokesperson for the Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance.

The requests for information were made on behalf of the MEJA, a coalition of labor, faith and social justice organizations, and concerned whether information on parents of charter school students was provided to two pro-charter advocacy organizations.

“The demands for absurdly high fees to comply with our requests underscore an appalling lack of transparency on the part of these publicly funded Commonwealth charter schools,” said Davis.

This issue underscores problems that would be addressed in a public records access bill that Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo told the State House News Service may come to the floor for a vote next week.

Kyle Serrette, the director of education justice campaigns at the Center for Popular Democracy, who has issued similar requests to both public school districts and to charter schools in other states, said that schools typically charge very little or no money to respond to public information requests.

“Exorbitant requests for fees like this by large school companies limit transparency and reduce public trust in these schools,” Serrette said.

MATCH Charter Public Middle School demanded the most for the information: $36,015 (click here to see letter). Roxbury Preparatory Charter School quoted the second-highest fee estimate, $12,500. To date, Boston Renaissance Charter Public School and Boston Preparatory Charter Public School have failed to respond.

UP Academy Dorchester, an in-district Horace Mann charter school, was the only one to respond with the information requested, providing its student records policy free of charge and stating that it has not engaged in any of the actions for which information was requested.

“These fee estimates from seven of the eight schools that responded are exorbitant and beyond our capacity to pay,” said Davis. “These charges violate the spirit and letter of our public records law.”

The MEJA requests were made in an attempt to determine the relationship between these Boston charter schools and two charter advocacy organizations —Families for Excellent Schools and the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association. Specifically, the coalition is trying to determine whether the schools had any contracts with these groups, any policies related to providing outside groups with contact information for students’ families, and any record of providing these two outside groups with that contact information.

“We were concerned about reports that the charter schools may have been giving these corporate-backed, pro-charter organizations parent contact information so that parents could be enlisted to lobby on behalf of the charter school agenda,” said Davis. “If that has been going on, we believe the public has a right to know. Charter schools are publicly funded. We do not believe that public funds should be used to persuade parents to lobby on behalf of the private charter school industry.”

Families for Excellent Schools is a New York-based organization that supports Unify Boston and Great Schools Massachusetts, both of which are pro-charter advocacy groups. FES has received millions of dollars from corporate foundation groups, including the Broad Foundations and the Walton Family Foundation.

This chart indicates when the charter schools queried responded to the request for information, which was made in a letter dated Aug. 20, 2015. It also lists the fee estimate from each school and the name of the law firm, if any, that responded to the request.

School Response Date Records Produced Fee Estimate Firm
Boston Collegiate Charter 21-Aug-15   $7,250 Krokidas & Bluestein
KIPP Academy Boston Elementary and Middle 28-Aug-15   $9,560 Krokidas & Bluestein
Brooke Roslindale Charter 28-Aug-15   $7,500 Krokidas & Bluestein
Neighborhood House Charter 28-Aug-15   $8,615 Krokidas & Bluestein
Excel Academy - East Boston 28-Aug-15   $10,000 Krokidas & Bluestein
UP Academy Charter - Horace Mann 01-Sep-15 04-Sep-15 $0 None
Roxbury Preparatory Charter 22-Sep-15   $12,500 None
Match Charter Public Middle 25-Sep-15   $36,015 Krokidas & Bluestein
Boston Renaissance Charter Public        
Boston Preparatory Charter Public        

Excerpts from guidance from the Massachusetts Secretary of State’s office on what fees may be charged for providing public records:

  • “In the interest of open government, all records custodians are strongly urged to waive the fees associated with access to public records, but are not required to do so under the law.”
  • “A records custodian may charge and recover a fee for the time he or she spends searching, redacting, photocopying and refiling a record. The hourly rate may not be greater than the prorated hourly wage of the lowest paid employee who is capable of performing the task. A records custodian may not recover fees associated with record organization.”

Public Records Request made by the service Muckrock on behalf of MEJA on Aug. 20.

Dear Records Officer:

Pursuant to Massachusetts Public Records Act § 66-10 et seq., I am writing to request the following records:

    1. Copies of all communication, including email, between your organization and Families for Excellent Schools, a/k/a Families for Excellent Schools Advocacy, or any agent thereof, inclusive of all attachments and memoranda. For purposes of manageability, you may limit this request to only those communications from the previous 24 months.
    2. Copies of all communication, including email, between your organization and Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, or any agent thereof, inclusive of all attachments and memoranda. For purposes of manageability, you may limit this request to only those communications from the previous 24 months.
    3. Copies of any contracts between your organization and Families for Excellent Schools, Inc., and/or Families for Excellent Schools Advocacy, Inc., if applicable.
    4. Copies of any contracts between your organization and Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, if applicable.
    5. Copies of any policies relating to the transmission of student records to a third party, promulgated since 2012, including revisions.
    6. Copies of any school policies relating specifically to the disclosure of student “directory information” to third parties promulgated since 2012, including revisions.
    7. Copies of any parental notifications regarding transmission of student information to Families for Excellent Schools, Inc., and/or Families for Excellent School Advocacy, Inc., if applicable.
    8. Copies of any parental notifications regarding transmission of student information to Massachusetts Charter Public School Association if applicable.
    9. Documentation of any payments made to Families for Excellent Schools, Inc. and/or Families for Excellent Schools Advocacy Inc. in the previous two years, if applicable.
    10. Documentation of any payments made to Massachusetts Charter Public School Association in the previous two years, if applicable.

If any of the responsive documents contain information protected from disclosure under the Public Records Act, please redact only the protected information, and note any the reason for redaction.

If there are any fees for copying the records requested, please advise me.

Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter. If possible, I request electronic copies of these records, to be emailed to [EMAIL ADDRESS]. If that is not possible, please furnish all applicable records to: