(Missouri Independent) – Attorney General Eric Schmitt alleges in a newly filed lawsuit that Springfield Public Schools wants to avoid scrutiny of its curriculum and training materials — and is violating the Missouri Sunshine law to do it.
The district improperly demanded a deposit of more than $37,000 to search its records for instances where it incorporated elements of critical race theory in its staff training and classwork, the lawsuit filed Tuesday in Greene County alleges. It also improperly limited the scope of the request, Schmitt’s office charged.
The lawsuit, alleging 13 separate violations of the law designed to protect access to public records, asked that the district be fined between $13,000 and $65,000 and pay the state’s cost in the case.
“Springfield Public Schools has skirted our efforts to demand answers and transparency for parents who send their kids to Springfield Public Schools by demanding exorbitant fees for public records,” Schmitt said in a news release.
In a strongly worded response issued by spokesman Stephen Hall, the district accused Schmitt of deliberately distorting the district’s work on inclusion and equity.
“These efforts represent a loud, divisive and misguided distraction,” Hall’s statement read “SPS has been very clear: Critical race theory is not being taught in our classrooms.”
In the release, Schmitt said the violations put improper barriers between its records and the public.
“Parents have every right to know exactly what is being taught to their children, especially when public school systems are implementing components of critical race theory and so-called ‘antiracism’ teachings in teacher training and applying social justice scorecards to math and other core curricula,” Schmitt said.
Schmitt is using the courts “to attack public education,” the district response stated.
“This is an attempt to intimidate (Springfield Public Schools), and while it will not prevail, it will, unfortunately, require considerable taxpayer resources to defend,” Hall wrote.
The district is focusing its efforts to fight and explain racism and provide an environment where all children can learn, the statement read.
“Ensuring our district is equitable and inclusive is our ethical responsibility to make SPS safe for all students and staff,” the statement read. “Any deliberate attempt to misrepresent this important work, especially for political purposes, is shameful indeed.”
The request Schmitt sent Oct. 5 to the district was almost identical to one sent Sept. 1 by state Rep. Craig Fishel, R-Springfield. Fishel’s request asked for “all documents relating to Springfield Public Schools teacher and/or staff, including contract employees, Professional Development Training, Student Curriculum” with any of 22 search terms.
Those terms included “critical race theory” and “The 1619 Project,” both targets of conservative outrage, as well as other terms from the national debate over race, including “Black Lives Matter,” white privilege,” “social justice” and “diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
In his request, Schmitt added one item – all information and material used in staff training and curriculum for the past four years.
The district wanted $179,000 to begin the search for records sought by Fishel.
Seeking large, up-front payments is one of the violations, the lawsuit charge. The Sunshine law only allows agencies to ask for the cost of copying the records in its files to be paid in advance, the lawsuit states, not the cost of searching those files for documents that must be disclosed.
The district, in its statement, defended both the cost and the practice of demanding fees in advance.
Both requests “are extraordinarily broad in scope and have the potential to divert hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of district staff time to search and review thousands of pages of documents,” the statement from Hall read. “The original request includes all staff and student email communications sent over multiple years.”
Another violation, the lawsuit charges, was in the way the district set the prices for records requests from different entities. In one instance, the lawsuit states, the district asked Schmitt’s office to pay $48.50 an hour and called it the “lowest qualified IT employee hourly cost.”
For the same searches, to fulfill Fishel’s request, the district asked for $36.18 an hour.
Under the Sunshine law, records searches and copying are to be performed by the lowest-paid employee competent to do the work.
“Springfield Public Schools has not justified why the most senior IT position in its system must perform searches for the Attorney General’s Office’s requests, rather than lower-paid IT staff that it included in its estimates to Representative Fishel, and that are identified on the Springfield Public Schools’ salary schedule,” the lawsuit states.
(Photo courtesy of the attorney general’s office)