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Public records bill tries to ease some burden on school districts

By Lori Sattenspiel, interim director of legislative services

The attorney general’s task force looking at Oregon’s public records laws was charged with examining four issues: timelines, fees, exemptions and a review process.   

“I am a staunch advocate for personal privacy,” said Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum at the beginning of her testimony Thursday before the House Rules Committee.

Over the past 18 months, the task force has had four public meetings across the state to take input from the public and then continued meeting monthly as they did their work.  But “this is just the first step toward Oregonians accessing public records,” Rosenblum said.

The resulting legislation, Senate Bill 481, addresses some issues with public records requests. For school districts, this means an easing of the timeline for responding to requests.

Each school district in Oregon maintains its own public records and handles requests for access. The districts are required to have a process, available in writing, for requesting a copy of the records or an opportunity to inspect them. 

School districts are required to respond to a records request in a reasonable amount of time, and they may recover costs associated with satisfying the request. Districts with small staffs generally have a more difficult time satisfying record requests. A larger number of requests or a request during a school break can also be challenging for any size district.

Certain records of school districts must be made available under an official request, but SB 481 offers a safety valve for education institutions that are closed for winter, spring and summer breaks. The timeline outlined in the bill to respond to the public record request would stop when a school closes for breaks and then resume when school district staff return. 

Jeb Bladine, president and publisher of the News-Register Publishing Co., is also a member of the task force and testified supporting the task force work on timelines and transparency.

“We accept the premise of SB 481 with the understanding this is just the first step,” he said.

The task force will next look at how to handle exceptions to the rules under which documents must be shared. Those exceptions cause tensions between transparency and rights of privacy. Determining what to disclose when an exception applies is not simple. Beginning in 1973, there were 50 exceptions. Today public bodies, including school districts, must manage 500 exceptions when handling public records requests.

Bladine also expressed support for the public advocate that is part of Senate Bill 106.

SB 106 is Gov. Kate Brown’s piece in the public records transparency push. SB 106 would add a public records advocate, charged to help assist the public with records requests and assist a public body with any questions related to the record requested, including mediating any dispute that arises from the request.

Senate Bill 106 was heard earlier this week in the Senate Committee on General Government and Accountability and awaits further action. Senate Bill 481 has not been scheduled for a public hearing. OSBA will follow both of these bills closely.