Florida Keys News
Monday, November 11, 2013
School District considers PIO hire

The thorny issues of public records management and administrative salaries will be hot topics during the next school board meeting, taking place at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday at Marathon High School.

Both topics have been the subject of public debate lately, following a complaint filed by district watchdog Larry Murray, in September. Murray's complaint to the Inspector General of the state Department of Education asserted that Schools Superintendent Mark Porter lied to the board at an Aug. 13 meeting, when asked whether or not certain employees had been given raises or not. The brouhaha in turn ignited a debate over the district's policies regarding records requests by the public.

On Tuesday, Porter will attempt to defuse both controversies.

"The big picture response to the public records issue, as well as the compensation question will be addressed in my report," Porter said Friday. "There have been some questions raised about how we can improve the overall process with public records, and how to provide greater transparency with regards to salaries, which we intend to deal with."

As Porter sees it, the records issue boils down to three components: The creation and retention of public records, and the response to requests for them.

"We need to be more attentive to the records that we create, as far as when and how we're creating what could become public records," Porter said. "We also have to try to think along the lines of more judicious use of email, including what types of information should not be used in email. I'm not saying 'don't create records.' I'm saying that, for instance, when sending an email about a particular student, you may not use their name, but if you include enough information that people can read it and say, 'oh, that's so and so,' ultimately that could be something that ends up being in a student's record."

Or, as Porter put it in a document linked to the agenda item, "It is imperative that all employees understand what does, and what does not constitute a public record. When has a record been created that is thereby subject to retention and recovery, and how to avoid unnecessarily or unintentionally creating public records, particularly emails and text messages."

As far as retention practices go, Porter's report blames "poor past and current practices in the MCSD (sic) this regard" as a "significant inhibitor to timely and complete responses" to public records requests.

Lastly, with regard to responding to requests, Porter acknowledged that while the public has the right to inspect and copy district records, "Florida Statutes . . . . [do] not mandate that an agency create new records in order to accommodate a request for information from the agency."

Further, "Chapter 119 also provides for the recovery of the actual cost of duplication of records, and the reasonable actual cost incurred for the use of information technology resources and/or clerical or supervisory assistance."

As a remedy, Porter proposes that the board on Tuesday affirm its commitment to complying with public records laws, and review and adopt the Monroe County School District Records Management Manual," which he claims was initiated before his arrival, but "never completed."

In addition, Porter will suggest that the board hire a full-time Records Management Liaison Officer/Public Information Officer, and purchase a new operating system to streamline the records process.

Lastly, the superintendant will suggest the hiring of a one-time vendor to file backed up records, and the development of a training protocol for all district employees regarding the records issue.

District 4 member Ed Davidson, who has been a consistent critic of many of Porter's policies, made clear on Friday his disapproval of Porter's approach to the records file.

"This is exactly the kind of thing you're not supposed to say in writing," Davidson said. "You don't put it in writing that you're going to tell your employees not to create records."

Davidson also shot down the suggestion of hiring a full-time spokesperson for the School District.

"I will absolutely not support a full-time PIO (public information officer)," he said. "I have been a PIO for the Navy and for a state-wide non-profit. It's a spin doctor's job, and it's inherently a conflict of interest. We don't need a spin doctor. I keep saying, if you don't want bad press, stop screwing up. But if you do screw up, admit it, tell the public what you're going to do to fix it and move on. Don't cover things up."

As for the salaries issue, Porter has identified 13 employees whose salaries have, in fact, changed, and their new status will be brought before the board for approval for a second time, since there were already approved at the Aug. 13 meeting.

Davidson decried this move as "an attempt to dramatically increase the superintendent's authority, which I will oppose. It delegates certain salary adjustments to the superintendent which I think conflicts with the law. He is reserving to himself salary judgments which are the purview of the board."

tschmida@keysnews.com

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