Interview: Sunshine Activist Dianna Pharr

This is the 13th in our series of interviews with Sunshine Activists from around the country.

Our goal is to interview ordinary citizens who use open records at the state and local level to promote greater awareness of and insight into the local governance.

Sunshine Activists

Today’s interview is with Texas activist Dianna Pharr whose website is Keep Eanes Informed. Dianna lives in Austin, Texas.

You may contact Dianna via her website or by emailing her.

  1. What year did you file your first open records request?

    2003. This is the first year that I questioned the operations and expenditures of our school districts. There were many years when I simply baked cookies for the teacher appreciation luncheon, volunteered in my child’s elementary school, served on various committees and wrote an annual check to the booster club. I did not know the location of the central administration building of my school district much less the board room. I had more than hope … I had faith … in my public school district.

  2. What documents were you looking for?

    When our community began its public discussion of our district’s budget “crisis” in 2003, I began asking Eanes ISD for basic public information that was not readily available from the district or in any other venue, seeking information to answer questions about spending and other topics, hoping to increase the public’s awareness and understanding of proposed cuts to academic or other programs. Many in our community questioned our district’s abundant athletic spending and its apparent absence from the evolving lists of proposed budget cuts.

    Community members and teachers provided the ideas for my information gathering efforts. Afraid of retaliation, many feared submitting their own requests to the district. “Can you get the board minutes and agendas?” “Are the coach’s salaries and stipends public information?” “Are disabled children appropriately identified and served in the gifted program?” “Are we charging private athletic clubs to use our public facilities?” “Who benefits from the money generated by the Jumbotron?” “How safe are our school campuses?” “Does the district comply with federal law … are our school facilities accessible as required by ADA … playgrounds, stages, and restrooms?” “Are emails between and among the superintendent and board members public information?” “Have the board members completed required conflict of interest forms?”

  3. Did you get those documents?

    Eventually, after many months and significant effort and expense. As I reviewed documents related to the operations and expenditures of our district, I formed a perspective that was truly troubling. I was also shocked by the inability or unwillingness of the district to provide information in an efficient and effective manner.

  4. Charles Davis of the National Freedom of Information Coalition has talked about having “a FOI moment”. Have you had “a FOI moment” and can you describe it?

    When my school district refused my offer as a volunteer to post the public information to the official district website, I created my own website and posted the public information without editorial comment. Our community library supported open government and reserved a portion of the reference shelves for hard copies of the information. The library also linked www.KeepEanesInformed.com to their site for easy online reference. I recognized that all who reviewed public information would have varying perspectives. Information is the essential first step to action – all sorts of actions. I hoped that others would review the site’s information and communicate their own opinions regarding the policy, practice and priorities of our school district.

    Almost immediately after I published my website, my focus was diverted. In November 2003, the Eanes ISD board published my young son’s confidential information including his medical information and released it to the public in writing during a board meeting. As always, I first attempted to resolve this matter within the school district. Eanes ISD retained an outside attorney to represent the district. I represented my son pro se. When the Eanes ISD administration and then board denied my complaint, I submitted a formal complaint to the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C. Again, the district retained attorneys to battle my child’s privacy rights. I represented my son pro se. In January 2005, when the agency ruled against the district and found that it did not comply with FERPA law, Eanes ISD could have simply complied with the federal law, protected children, and changed their policy and procedure – at no cost to the district. Instead the district again retained attorneys to appeal the adverse finding. Again, I represented my son (and therefore every other child whose records are maintained by public schools) pro se. Again, in March 2007, the U.S. Department of Education confirmed its finding against Eanes ISD. I did not sue the school district for damages. Instead, I followed administrative complaint processes in an effort to convince Eanes ISD to comply with federal law created to protect children. A point to ponder: the district described the release of my child’s confidential information as “inadvertent.” Yet our district leadership chose to retain tax-funded attorneys to battle my child’s privacy rights. Inadvertent?

  5. What is the worst (or funniest or most obstructionist or most outrageous) reply you’ve ever received?

    I requested information held by the board members and the district responded by repeatedly asking me to “clarify” my request. Apparently, the school district needed “clarification” on the definition of: board minutes, board agendas, and other routine categories of public information that should be readily available to the public on the district’s own website. Then, the district simply “closed” the request and refused to produce even a single page. I waited five months and asked again. I finally accessed the public information … sixteen months after my request and only with the help of the Office of the Attorney General and local County Attorney. The information included a wealth of public information that should have been readily available including reports reflecting the district’s inaccessibility to children in wheelchairs. We are currently working towards improvements and encountering predicable resistance. Visit my site to learn more.

  6. How quickly do you generally receive replies to a request?

    It varies. At times, the school district responds within the 10 day time frame required by the Texas Public Information Act. On several occasions however, the District has completely refused to respond or provide access to the public documents making it necessary for me to contact either the Office of the Attorney General and/or the County Attorneys for help with compliance. Though these offices have provided assistance in obtaining the public documents the process generally takes several months and frequent follow up.

  7. About how many open records requests have you filed?

    Approximately 50 each year. It is also important to remember that I have been the “clearinghouse” for public information. When I began and to this day, Eanes ISD employees ask me to gather public information for them because they are afraid of retaliation from the district. This number also includes my requests for information related to my child (education records.) Other parent’s requests for education records are not recorded on the log.

  8. How do you let your friends, neighbors or the local media know about the documents you get?

    My website www.KeepEanesInformed.com is a repository for the public information gathered. I have also shared the information in a reference section of our local community library. The information is disclosed as necessary to community members as well and is essential to specific advocacy efforts.

  9. Have you run into any trouble as the result of filing open records requests?

    Unfortunately yes. The school district retaliated in a variety of different ways including the disclosure of my child’s education record to the public.

  10. What’s the most significant political outcome that has resulted from the work you do?

    The most significant political outcome resulting from the work I do is increased awareness of the Texas Public Information Act, our rights as citizens, and the attitude of Eanes ISD leadership when parents and community members attempt to gather public information, speak out, or advocate for children’s right. Also, HB 2564 was passed this year in response to the district’s strong lobbying (funded by our education tax dollars) to limit taxpayer’s access to public information. Hopefully, HB 2564 will be challenged in court and overturned. Also, my work towards confidentiality rights for children in response to the district’s noncompliance with federal law (FERPA) created case law to further protect the privacy rights of all children whose confidential information is maintained by a government agency or educational institution. On a smaller scale, I believe our public school district’s most recent bond proposal (2006) to purchase an indoor athletic field (so the football players wouldn’t get hot or cold) was voted down directly as a result of our distribution of public documents. The board members placed computerized phone bank calls to our community advocating for the passage of this bond and their “friends” mailed out expensive, glossy advertisements urging voters to vote for this bond. However, our job was already complete. We had already shared public information regarding the district’s financial priorities via email community updates, the public community library, and on www.KeepEanesInformed.com. I’ve heard the bond failed because community members were unwilling to approve the construction of an indoor athletic practice facility when teaching staff, librarians and nurses were repeatedly reduced subsequent to ‘budget shortfalls’. However, the district recently “changed the scope” of the available bond money from a second bond and has approved the expenditure of millions of our dollars on Astroturf and lighting for sports practice field while children in wheelchairs don’t have covered ramps in the rain and can’t access the school playgrounds. Visit my site for updates on that issue.

  11. Has your local newspaper ever commented on the work you do? Favorably or unfavorably?

    Favorably or unfavorably? The Austin American Statesman has commented on my work favorably. You can find excerpts from these articles on my website www.KeepEanesInformed.com.

  12. What’s your best advice for other “Sunshine Activists”?

    Gather facts, not opinions. Document. Be tenacious. Share the work and the information. Take your vitamins. And always remember … corruption needs a dark place to hide. Access to public information is the first essential step to authentic involvement and positive change. Share the effort … and the public information.

  13. What do you know now that you wish you had known when you started?

    The Office of the Attorney General has no jurisdiction to enforce the law. Contact your local prosecutor (District Attorney and/or County Attorney) for help when your school district or other government agency refuses to comply with the Act. Simply stated, the best way to protect the Texas Public Information Act is to enforce the Act.

  14. If you could change your state’s open records law just one way, what would that change be?

    The Texas Public Information Act should require online (or central office) posting of “super-public” information such as superintendent’s contract, salary, check register, and expenditures of our education tax dollars to benefit private attorneys and lobbyists. This information should be readily available to all taxpayers and citizens without the need for a formal public information request.

  15. Do you participate in any formal way in organizations that promote the freedom of information cause?

    My work to gather and share public information has been a personal effort.

  16. Are you willing to have other “sunshine activists” from your state get in touch with you?

    Yes! Please visit my site, www.KeepEanesInformed.com and contact me via the site’s email address.

Thanks, Dianna.

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