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October 18, 2006

Something To Hide?


When a municipality or school district makes up some wordy, seemingly innocent excuse as to why it can't fulfill a simple Freedom of Information request, you can be sure it's almost always deliberate and the entity in question has something to hide.

Such is the case at the East Hampton School District, which is mired in the curious and some say scandalous task of handling the busing of our children, undertaken just days before the school year began.

Depending on who is doing the telling, the district and its longtime bus provider, Schaefer Bus Company, either parted ways because Schaefer decided not to honor its contract or because the district pulled the rug out from under the company by hiring away key personnel.

The smart money says the real story has yet to come out, but that is a topic for another day.

We filed a Freedom of Information request on September 29. By law, the district should have responded to the request within five business days. Two weeks later we sent a second request, noting the district was already in violation for not acknowledging the original one. On Oct. 11 Donna Russo, the records management officer, wrote she would forward this request "to the business office." On October 14 Russo sent a letter denying our request stating "you are not asking for specific documents or records."

Here are some of the requests made in the written FOIL request:

The budgetary amount appropriated for the transfer of students; how many school bus drivers have been retained. What is their rate of pay? How many school buses were purchased or leased?

Like most newspapers, the editors of our paper are required to take a six-hour course and yearly refreshers taught by Robert Freeman, the Director of the New York Committee on Open Government.

We know, of course, that everything we requested clearly falls under the purview of public information. In fact, the district, funded with public money, should be virtually transparent: taxpayers have the right to know almost all of the business dealings, right down to the paystubs of every employee and where every dollar has been spent.

FOIL requests are not a game of semantics during which the district plays cat-and-mouse, making filers jump through hoops before releasing public information. It is public information: the district has it. Its job is to gather it and release whatever is requested as quickly as possible.

Dr. Raymond Gualtieri, the superintendent, has been evasive; when asked how much the buses cost to lease, he says, "we won't know until June."

We're not buying it. Surely, written agreements exist, perhaps with parameters tying in the cost to mileage, but certainly an educated guess as to cost could be made.

We want to see every lease agreement and contract concerning every bus the district is using and intends to use. We want to know how many miles per week the buses travel, and how much gas it costs to service the routes each week. In fact, we have a four page list of requests we have over-nighted to the district.

As taxpayers, you need to know what the district is doing with your money. We intend to find out.

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