Parents' Voice decries FOI fees

A parents group is critical of a Burnaby school district estimate that it could take many thousands of dollars to fulfill its freedom of information (FOI) request.

Homara Ahmad, a member of Parents' Voice, which formed to oppose the district's anti-homophobia policy, made the FOI request in June. In it she asked for "copies of all reports, incidents recorded, and/or complaints made involving students, staff or any other person related to the operation of the Burnaby School District, that has been party to any form of bullying, assault, harassment, verbal abuse or any form of mean-spirited conduct, that has occurred on or near any property owned, managed or operated by School District 41."

The information was to include "all and any form of record, including but not limited to: email, written reports, electronic records, files etc. from January 1997 — today's date."

The school district's FOI coordinator, Doug Berardine, responded by asking to meet with Ahmad to clarify the nature of the request so as to provide the information she seeks at a reasonable cost.

As it stands, the request covers over 14 years of documents that could have been created by up to 1,000 or more different employees and former employees, Berardine explained.

"As you have currently framed it, our estimate is that it would take hundreds and perhaps thousands of hours to search and simply identify responsive records and a great deal further time to prepare the records for disclosure."

The first three hours of searching for records is free, he noted, and $30 per hour after that, which is "only partial cost recovery," plus 25 cents per page for photocopying. If the district were to proceed with the existing request, it would require a deposit of $5,000 to start, with that amount being replenished each time the costs reach that amount.

Gordon World, a spokesman for Parents' Voice, said the purpose of the request is to determine whether existing anti-bullying policies at the district are working. The group has maintained that the newly adopted Policy 5.45, aimed at protecting students from homophobic bullying and harassment, is unnecessary, saying the district should simply enforce its general anti-bullying policy.

"Should this information not be readily available?" World said of the district's cost estimate. "Why is it so onerous to obtain this information?"

The issue is how broad the information request is, said assistant superintendent Kevin Kaardal. Often day-to-day interventions involving students, such as one child calling another a name, does not end up in a report.

Those that result in some form of disciplinary action do, but the accessibility of the information varies, he explained. The records for secondary students are in the British Columbia Enterprise Student Information System (BCeSIS), a common electronic student information system, but only in statistical form. Incidents of bullying or harassment would then have to be cross-referenced with individual student files to get the details of each unique case.

Not all Burnaby elementary schools have been converted to the BCeSIS system, so the records for each individual school would have to be searched. The fact the request spans the past 14 years means older information systems, including paper records, could also be involved.

Incidents are recorded but not in the categories and subcategories that Parents' Voice is requesting. That would have to be found within the text of incident reports, Kaardal said, stressing that every case is unique. And once files are found, all personal information identifying those involved would have to be redacted, which is also time-consuming.

When it comes to filing FOI requests, "the more specific the better, so that they can provide exactly what information that they need," he said. "When they do broad-based requests that requires us to go far wider in terms of our search for information and that involves more people, more file reviews, etc. and that creates additional cost."

As of Thursday, Homara Ahmad had yet to meet with district officials to clarify her request, Kaardal said.

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