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School superintendents hit the books over public records law

A university researcher earlier this year set out to learn more about the pay differences between male and female educators in Massachusetts. Instead, he got a lesson in stonewalling under the state’s public records law, after more than 200 school systems initially ignored his requests for information.

Now, the superintendents of those school districts are being told to sit down for their own lessons.

The secretary of state’s office took the unusual step last week of ordering them to undergo training on how to respond to requests for public records. The sheer number of affected districts makes the ruling one of the broadest single actions the state has taken to enforce records laws.


The state also directed the school systems to respond to the requests made by a research assistant for Joseph P. Price, an economics professor at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

In an interview, Price said he had no idea the information would be so difficult to obtain.

“I didn’t want to create a hassle for anyone,” Price said. “I just assumed it would be readily available.”

The ruling comes against a backdrop of pointed criticism over Massachusetts’ much-maligned public records law, long regarded as one of the weakest in the nation because it imposed few consequences upon violators while allowing public agencies to charge excessive fees. A new law going into effect in January will limit fees, enable judges to force violators to pay lawyers’ fees, and provide agencies more time to process requests.

But some critics say the changes don’t go far enough.

Price said he hopes to answer some fundamental questions about why a difference in pay persists between male and female educators. Among them: Do pay structures based on years of experience and educational level penalize women who take time off for child-rearing?


In conducting the study, Price’s assistant reached out to more than 400 school districts, vocational school systems, and charter schools on May 13 for information on the salaries of each teacher and administrator, along with data denoting their gender, level of education, and years of experience.

Admittedly, he was requesting a big data set — reaching back more than five years — so he could document each employee’s advancement in pay over time. The research was emerging as the Massachusetts Legislature was considering a bill that aimed to provide equal pay among men and woman for comparable work.

About half of the school systems responded, either by acknowledging the requests, providing cost estimates to produce the data, or, in some cases, handing over the information.

But the rest never bothered to reply — a violation of the state’s public records law, which requires a response within 10 days. The large number of violators also created a cumbersome task for the state’s Public Records Division to investigate the complaint, which included a spreadsheet of the delinquent districts.

“A member of my staff contacted the first seventeen superintendents on the spreadsheet and the general consensus seemed to be the request was simply ignored,” Shawn A. Williams, the supervisor of records. wrote in the July 13 decision.

Williams later concluded in the decision, “I find the schools and school districts have failed to respond to a request for public records.”

With so many districts in violation, the Public Records Division issued its July 13 directive to the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. Coincidentally, the decision came while the superintendents group was holding a weeklong conference that included a presentation on the public records law. More than 400 superintendents and assistant superintendents registered for the conference.


It was unclear whether that presentation would satisfy the state’s order.

Thomas Scott, executive director of the association, said many superintendents were under the mistaken belief they did not have to respond to public records requests if they did not have the data in the form requested. The association, which was in contact with the state during the investigation, had its attorney advise members to comply with the researcher’s request, reminding them of the law’s requirements.

“It created quite a bit of buzz,” Scott said, adding that he believed many superintendents eventually responded to the Utah researcher’s request.

Price said he understood the request could cause hardships in many of the state’s smaller districts, although he added that he was amazed superintendents and the state were not already collecting the data. He said other states do.

He also said he found it odd how the estimated costs of producing the data varied. While many appeared to be willing to provide the data for free, dozens sought payments as high as $8,742. Collectively, the charges added up to $134,413.81 — far beyond the project’s budget.

“We didn’t want to cause any legal problems,” he said. “We are trying to collect data to answer a societal question that we feel is important.”


James Vaznis can be reached
at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.