$1,200 for a list of books? Fort Worth Parents Fighting District



A mother figuring out where to send her children to kindergarten came up against the high cost when she asked which books would be taught at each grade.


When Jenny Crossland filed for registration with the Fort Worth School District asking for a list of books that teachers could assign to each grade level, she thought the process would be simple.

“I was comparing my kids’ curriculum…to see which school I want to put them in next year,” she told the Star-Telegram. “When I spoke to charter and private schools, they were really proud of their curriculum and could relate things.”

In response to his request in June, the district sent a cost estimate totaling $1,267.50 to process the request — citing the time it would take to compile the requested information from various sources.

“I thought that was outrageous,” Crossland said, “I was so mad I tweeted about it and people went crazy.”

This June Tweet caught the attention of the Goldwater Institute, an Arizona-based conservative think tank that employs a “network of pro bono attorneys” called the American Freedom Network.

Kristina Denapolis West, another mother in Fort Worth and a lawyer, is part of this network.

She filed a similar request in August and received a similar cost estimate. In response, she filed a lawsuit with Attorney General Ken Paxton, claiming the costs exceeded the amount allowed by Texas state law. West declined to comment for this story.

Paxton’s office confirmed receipt of the complaint and said the next step is to ask the district to respond to questions.

The Goldwater Institute called the incident a “scandalous lack of transparency.”

District says book list would take 84 hours to compile

Under state law, a government agency is permitted to charge for materials, labor, and overhead associated with a request. Work is defined as the time required to locate, compile, copy and manipulate data, as well as any time required to redact confidential information.

There are also limits. Fees cannot be assessed, for example, for applications with responsive paper documents of less than 50 pages.

“It is highly unlikely, to the point of being unlikely, that any list of required or suggested reading material — even for thirteen grade levels — would exceed 50 pages,” West said in the complaint. “Therefore, the District’s charges also violate the Attorney General’s cost rules.”

In a statement, Fort Worth school officials said it would take 6.5 hours to put together the requested list for one year or more than 84 for all years.

A district spokesperson did not say whether the responding documents were longer than 50 pages, citing the nature of the complaint.

According to the district, “none of the applicants responded to the district regarding the cost estimate,” which the district said was “a good faith estimate of what it would cost to respond to the application as submitted. “.

The Fort Worth School Library catalogs, which are separate from required classroom books, are available for parents to search online.

The district said that “there would likely be some overlap between required selections and approved selections and those that might be found in library catalogs.”

Parents wonder about the content of the books

The record battle comes as elected leaders and parents in Texas debate what content is appropriate for children, with some districts adopting stricter policies on the types of books allowed at each grade level.

Crossland said the debates taking place in school districts across the state are part of the reason she filed the records request in the first place.

“I think every parent is worried about that right now,” she said. “If you watch the debates, conservative parents are worried about pornography, which they should be.”

Goldwater Institute vice president for litigation, Jonathan Riches, told the Star-Telegram that open records laws are in place to enable transparency in government-run institutions like schools.

“Parents have the right to know what their children will learn in school,” he said. “School district operations are open to parents and other members of the public and responsible government entities should not even have to force this public registration process, they should produce information about assigned books, information taught in class .”

Fees can be used to deter document requests

The Goldwater Institute has a guide for community members looking to file open case requests.

The guide, available online at openmygovernment.org, outlines best practices for applying and how to address obstacles.

One recommendation, which Fort Worth Schools said parents requesting information in this case have not done, is to contact the custodian of records to discuss reducing the request.

“Consider discussing and possibly refining the request with the records custodian, but document everything,” the guide suggests. “If the custodian of the records has difficulty understanding the request or claims that a request is burdensome because it is too broad, consider having a discussion with them to clarify and refine the request.”

This action plan “can help you get the information you want as well as cut down on unnecessary production.”

But unnecessary costs are not unheard of.

Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Texas Freedom of Information Foundation, said governments have used fees inappropriately in the past.

“In some cases, cost estimates are used as a deterrent to people not asking for information,” she said. “So sometimes the cost rules are misused to try to make requesters just want to back off and not ask for the information.”

Shannon clarified that she didn’t know enough about the Fort Worth case to know if that was the case with the book listings. If the costs prove too high, however, the attorney general can take steps to intervene, she said.

The Office of the Attorney General’s hotline is 512-475-2497 or 1-888-672-6787.

If the AG finds that an entity charges too much, it can order it to charge less and “even impose a financial penalty,” Shannon said.

This story was originally published September 2, 2022 5:00 a.m.

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