Steve Nelson is just a couple of months away from leaving his post as a board member for the Mountain View Whisman School District, but he shows no sign of ending his four-year campaign as a critic of the district's leadership. In the latest round of heated exchanges, Nelson harangued the district office staff, claiming that he had been "stonewalled" for months on public records requests, only to receive 3,500 pages of mostly useless information.
At the end of the Oct. 20 board meeting, Nelson hauled out a box containing thousands of pages of printouts from the district office that he received in response to a lengthy public records request he made in May. In a chain of emails, Nelson said he wanted information on middle school math "pathways," and a better idea of how math curriculum and class placement policies would guide students from fifth grade into the district's three middle-school math tracks.
What he got amounted to mostly useless documents that failed to address what he was asking for, Nelson said in an email to the Voice.
"The MVWSD administrators are either inept and need significant further training on Public Record Act (PRA) compliance and efficiency of process, or (are) purposefully out of compliance with PRA issues of obstruction and speedy resolution on public requests," Nelson said in the email. "Either one is of concern to how local democratic institutions function in an open and public manner."
The wording of the request itself was complex and confusing, asking for email exchanges between school and district staff dating back to June 2014. Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph said the problem was two-fold: not only was the request both vague and expansive, but it was covered the same time period that the district was adopting an entirely new math curriculum aligned with the Common Core state standards.
"It required a lot of manpower to pull through," Rudolph said. "The request actually started with over 5,000 documents and we had to sort through it. The challenge we faced is do we want to pay a lawyer to do that or do we want to use staff?"
All told, the request took about 35 to 40 staff hours, including time from top district staff in charge of curriculum, in order to address the single request. The result netted a total of six or seven reams of paper adding up to 3,500 pages. Rudolph said they tried to explain to Nelson that they needed clarity on his actual request and explained that it was a very big ask for the district office, but they never received a response. While they are obligated to fulfill the request, Rudolph said it detracts from the district's ability to focus on academics.
"I think that the focus of the school district should be on student performance, how well the students are doing, how well we are pushing our highest achieving kids, and how well we are closing the achievement gap," Rudolph said. "This takes time away from us to do that."
Nelson said that it was untrue that he was unresponsive, and that he was open to reducing the scope of his request once he heard it would take 110 days to get back to him.
"They absolutely did not get back to me. They refused to communicate with me," Nelson said.
At a June board meeting, Nelson voiced his irritation with the slow response from the district office, saying he was upset they wouldn't be able to give him "the damn thing" until after the summer. Rudolph countered Nelson's comments, pointing out that every one of his Public Records Act requests have been addressed, and said Nelson's constant barrage of inquiries are bogging down the district. In one month, he pointed out, Nelson had made 55 requests for information many of them informal requests, but each one requiring a response.
"You should allow the district to do their job instead of inundating us with 55 requests for information," Rudolph said at the meeting.
This isn't the first time Nelson and the district office have traded barbs over public records and information. In 2014, former Superintendent Craig Goldman clashed with Nelson over what he called a constant bombardment of requests for information that were often time-consuming or difficult to answer or for documents that simply didn't exist. Goldman expressed frustration that none of the requests ever seemed to lead to anything productive.
Rudolph declined to weigh in on whether Nelson's requests were being put to good use, but said he believes the district's process for handling Public Records Act requests is effective and not problematic, as Nelson described. Despite the big investment of staff time to fulfill Nelson's request, he said there are no current plans to hire additional staff to handle records requests.
"I don't see it as being a big issue for us," Rudolph said.