July 19, 2021
By Jon Riches
When parents ask their school board what their child will learn in kindergarten, they don’t expect to get hit with a bill for $74,000. Yet that is exactly what happened to Nicole Solas.
When her daughter was entering kindergarten in the South Kingstown, Rhode Island, School District, Nicole was concerned about what lessons she might be exposed to. And so she asked school administrators basic questions about the curriculum and class lessons, including whether Critical Race Theory or gender theory would be taught. Rather than answer her questions, the school district instructed Nicole to submit formal public records requests. But when she did as she was told, not only did the district evade vast portions of her requests, they threatened to sue Nicole for submitting too many of them.
“I was bullied by school administrators—just for trying to find out what my daughter would be taught in kindergarten,” Nicole said. “This sort of information should not be a government secret: All parents have a right to know what their kids are learning.”
The Goldwater Institute then stepped in and submitted a new records request that sought the information Nicole was seeking. One of the Institute’s requests sought emails and other communications among district personnel about distinct topic areas, such as the “1619 Project,” “Equitable Math,” and “Critical Race Theory.”
Rather than provide what should be a simple and accessible set of records, the district responded to the records request by claiming it would cost Nicole $74,310 for the district to provide the emails! You read that correctly: The district wants $74,310 for public records about specific topics regarding what Nicole’s child would learn in kindergarten.
Under Rhode Island law, a “reasonable charge” may be made for “the search and retrieval” of public records, but $74,000 is definitely unreasonable—particularly when the records are plainly described and should be readily available.
Unfortunately, when parents ask basic questions like this, they are often met with these insurmountable barriers. But no public body, and especially our public schools, should obstruct access to public information by demanding onerous fees. In fact, schools should simply have information about what their children will be taught and what informs the school’s curriculum easily available upon request. After all, many teachers already provide that information when they create and submit their lesson plans to their school administrations.
The district’s refusal to answer questions about whether it is teaching Critical Race Theory and other controversial topics raises two other questions about the school’s demand for $74,000. First, if the district is not teaching CRT, why are there so many emails that would cost so much money to produce about that topic? And second, why would the district spend so much time “redact[ing]” them?
Public information should be open to the public, period. The presumption is always in favor of disclosure and against darkness. The district’s new attempt to keep parents in the dark about public information by demanding impossible fees ignores those basic principles.
The Goldwater Institute is evaluating the district’s response and its next steps, including whether to seek to compel production of the records that district has withheld.
Jon Riches is the Director of National Litigation at the Goldwater Institute.