Local government, Schools

Malheur County DA caps Vale School District’s records fee in Christmas controversy

Malheur County District Attorney Dave Goldthorpe called the Vale School District’s nearly $7,000 price tag to produce a batch of public records “shocking” and ordered administrators to release them for no more than $1,000.

Goldthorpe issued the public records order on Friday, June 28, to April Johnson, a Vale parent and Elizabeth Polay, a Salem attorney representing the school district.

Johnson requested district documents related to the district’s decision to drop “Christmas” from school calendars. The district said that her request for records going back three years would result in nearly 17,000 emails and cost nearly $7,000 to disclose.

Polay told Johnson that the high cost included the district’s time to track down the emails and more than $2,000 in legal fees to review every document for sensitive student information.

Johnson contested the fees, asking Goldthorpe to order a reduction.

The district attorney said in his order that Johnson’s request was “in fact quite broad in scope,” the district’s fee of nearly $7,000 to produce primarily emails was a “shocking amount of money” for a private citizen to have to pay for “clearly public records that she has a legal right to demand.”

Goldthorpe wrote that it was not Johnson’s fault the district identified so many emails and that it chose to have an attorney review the records before releasing them.

Alisha McBride said while Johnson’s request was pending that the district’s lawyer would help administrators identify records within the scope of Johnson’s request and redact or exclude them to ensure the district was following the law.

Nick Budnick, a former board member and current volunteer with the Society of Professional Journalists, an organization that promotes openness and transparency within government agencies, said the Oregon Public Records Law was passed because people have a right to know what their government is doing.

He said “excessive public records fees” charged by government agencies prevent people from being able to find out what public entities are doing on a regular basis, according to what Budnick hears from members of the Society of Professional Journalists.

However, Budnick said, the organization hears about a few agencies that understand that transparency “breeds trust, even if it comes with criticism at times.”

“Too often we hear about agencies using records fees to obstruct inquiries by members of the public who want to expose institutional racism and inequities, official misconduct or just find out what’s going on,” he said.

According to Budnick, state law surrounding public records requests lacks the “safeguards” to prevent government entities from charging exorbitant fees to produce records.

“There’s little incentive to make public information more accessible or for agencies to help members of the public get the information they’re looking for in a cheaper, easier way,” Budnick said.

Goldthorpe encouraged Johnson to narrow her public records request to avoid paying the $1,000 fee by making it more specific and shortening the timeline. Johnson asked for three years worth of documents including  meeting minutes, memos and emails.

McBride said previously that the district and the board informally agreed with the local teachers union in 2021 to remove the word Christmas from the calendar to be more “inclusive.”


What’s in a name? Vale woman takes up crusade for Christmas

Taking ‘Christmas’ out of school program title not a violation, Vale board decides

News tip? Send your information to [email protected].

HOW TO SUBSCRIBE – The Malheur Enterprise delivers quality local journalism – fair and accurate. You can read it any hour, any day with a digital subscription. Read it on your phone, your Tablet, your home computer. Click subscribe – $7.50 a month.