The Unbelievable “Whiteness” of Springfield Public Schools
The debate over critical race theory (CRT) is heating up in the Show-Me State. The legislature recently held a hearing on CRT to explore parents’ concerns about its appearance in K-12 classrooms. Our work highlighting Lee’s Summit’s five- to six-figure payment demands for its lesson plans even got a shout out from the committee chair.
While Lee’s Summit stands out for its fee demands, it isn’t alone in its dubious Sunshine Law practices. Last month the St. Louis public school district said it had no records responsive to my identical request of it and would send any if found. After a month without records being sent and after being told again it had no records to send, I informed the district that I knew it had responsive records and showed evidence, at which point the district suddenly, er, remembered it did have some of the documents I had asked for. Thanks to the insiders I’ve gotten to know and the documents I’ve received to date, I anticipate the “memories” of districts statewide are going to be jogged often in the weeks ahead.
It isn’t just some “big city” problem, either. A number of rural districts also have gotten my attention, with Morgan Co. R-I demanding $15,000 for its records. I’m still waiting for a list of how that number was arrived at. Districts and schools that received my inquiries but haven’t responded at all won’t escape scrutiny either; after all, they’re breaking the law by not responding.
The Sunshine Law process is pretty simple. Once a Sunshine Law request is received by a government body, it has three days to respond. Governments can charge reasonable fees for securing and transmitting documents, but they can also waive those fees when the documents requested are in the public interest. Agencies can and do consult lawyers, but in my experience lawyers aren’t the ones interacting with records requestors. Of the over 2,700 requests I’ve sent out to schools and districts, I’ve dealt with a lawyer directly only about a half dozen times, almost exclusively by email, and almost always in ways that would be indistinguishable from interaction with lay staff. In other words, it’s unusual when an attorney gets highly involved, but it isn’t always notable. The Sunshine Law process is that straightforward.
Some of the most outrageous interactions I’ve had so far are with districts that go out of their way to create the illusion of compliance with the Sunshine Law only to use supposed research and production costs to discourage inquiries and withhold public documents. By far the most eyebrow-raising district behavior in that vein has been from the Springfield Public School District.
On June 14th—about an hour after I sent out my Sunshine Law requests to schools and districts statewide—I received a phone call from an attorney representing the Springfield Public School District who (in short) wanted to find out what I was doing with the information I was seeking. I explained plainly to him that I was going to post everything online for the public to see.
The phone conversation, which lasted about half an hour, alternated between friendly and direct. At one point I was told that the only return I’d probably get would be for the term “whiteness,” and it would be from some art textbook. I chuckled that that’s always possible, but the attorney was quick to say that he was joking. The call concluded, and I waited for Springfield’s written response to my request, which was provided days later.
I mention the “whiteness” remark because included in Springfield’s very legalistic response demanding nearly $2,000 for records—signed by its custodian of records—was this odd tidbit:
A review of the District’s approved curriculum documents revealed only one book which has been approved in the past for use in the District’s High School literature classes, and it is not currently being used, that used the term “whiteness.” That book, Brave New World, uses the term once on page 15 in a sentence that reads: “…also pale as death, pale with the posthumous whiteness of marble.”
Am I to believe that in three days someone at the Springfield Public School District not only went through the curricula and lesson plans district wide and found nothing, but also went through books the district was no longer using by hand to search for terms and designate a page number? As the attorney suggested, the only term that the district discovered had to do with “whiteness,” and only in connection with something outside of the CRT context. Quite a coincidence.
I have contacted hundreds of districts and thousands of schools. No one besides Springfield has returned a result for a piece of literature, let alone one that was no longer taught. None have returned a result from an art or language arts class, either. In my opinion, Springfield’s was the kind of response a lawyer would deliver to flout the text and spirit of the Sunshine Law, and the demand for thousands of dollars was an added (but expected) insult that local governments often will present to stop transparency requests. This isn’t my first rodeo; we saw these ridiculous demands from local governments for their checkbooks, too.
I replied to Springfield by asking whether the district’s response represented the records held by the schools as well. I received a non-responsive answer. At the end of June, I sent a second Sunshine Law request for emails from within the district that related to our Sunshine Law correspondence. In July I got a response from the new custodian of records who had a remarkably similar writing style to the last custodian of records, and who now presented a bill for over $4,000 for that request, at a different and higher rate for “redaction and processing” activities the district said it would have to undertake. I asked for an explanation for that rate difference; I have received none.
I asked for the district to remove attorney time expenses, which is what the law requires, given the costs that were driving both estimates were related to redactions the district said had to be made and privileged correspondence the district said had to be excised. The district responded that attorney time expenses weren’t included. Really? So lay people are making the determinations about materials subject to attorney–client privilege and other legally sensitive redactions?
What is Springfield concerned about disclosing?
Sitting in the background throughout this process has been the fact that the Springfield Public School District is already under fire for the CRT-informed trainings it’s conducted with teachers. The idea that these professional trainings aren’t informing district curricula or lesson plans, explicitly and implicitly, doesn’t seem credible, and the refusal of the district to exercise complete openness and transparency in showing what is being taught to kids is wrong.
Parents and taxpayers deserve to know what their kids are being taught. If a district, school, or teacher doesn’t want to share that information, then they shouldn’t be teaching it.