By BARBARA LaBOE The Montana Standard
Montana's school districts receive mostly high marks when it comes to releasing public documents, but not everyone agrees on what is public or who gets to see them.
Citizens conducting a statewide check of public access to public records this summer visited the largest school district in each of the state's 56 counties, asking for the salaries of the superintendents of the largest school district. In 52 counties, they got the information.
Officials in two counties declined to provide the information. School offices in one county, Wibaux, were closed when the survey was conducted, and the citizen surveyor in one county, Judith Basin, inadvertently sought the salary of the county superintendent of schools, rather than the superintendent of the largest district in the county. The county declined to release the salary of its superintendent.
In Glacier County, an official said that only the secretary had the information and that the secretary couldn't be called out of a meeting.
Fergus County officials said the salary information was in the superintendent's contract, but said the information couldn't be released because the contract was not public information.
Officials in a number of counties were confused as to whether the superintendent's contract is a public document.
In Ennis, an official initially said the document was public only ''for our taxpayers'' in Madison County, but eventually released the contract.
In Toole County, a Shelby public schools clerk read aloud the salary but then abruptly left for lunch amid repeated requests for the contract. Another office employee also wouldn't release the contract.
In Custer County, when asked to verify the salary in the contract, a Miles City school employee instead wrote the figure on a blank piece of paper and said that was sufficient.
Billings school employees in Yellowstone County released the salary after several requests, adding it had already appeared in The Billings Gazette - apparently not understanding the figure is public for everyone, not just the news media. As for the contract, one employee said: ''We would get into all kinds of trouble for letting you see that private document.''
The survey this summer was a project conducted by Montana news organizations to gauge the public's access to public records. The citizen surveyors were instructed not to identify themselves or to say where they worked unless pressed by officials. The law doesn't require citizens to identify themselves to get public information.
Still, officials in 28 counties asked the citizens for their names, and eight times they wanted to know the surveyor's employer. Officials in 17 counties wanted to know why the information was being requested, including Mike Perry, superintendent of the Chester public schools in Liberty County.
Perry acknowledged his contract is public but he only gave the citizen his salary figure of $52,000, not his contract. Perry said he took that position because the citizen didn't identify himself - and someone in the courthouse had called ahead, warning that a ''stranger'' was requesting documents.
''If he had come in and told me who he was and what he was doing, fine,'' Perry said in a September interview, months after the survey. ''But there was no way I was going to hand it over to someone I didn't know and (who) was acting like that.''
''I understand it's part of the law,'' he said of not having to identify oneself to see records. But in a small town, ''I think you would have a harder time getting'' the information without giving a name.
In Mineral County, Superior school officials provided the salary, but not the contract that would corroborate the amount. They said it could take more than two weeks to process a written request, and they would charge up to $30 to supply the information.
Superintendent Bill Woodford agreed in an October interview that the cost estimate given to the surveyor was exaggerated, but defended the district's records policy.
He said it was adopted with the help of the Montana School Boards Association and allows the district to prioritize requests.
''Schools are public entities, but they are not necessarily open to the public because we're really in the business of educating kids,'' Woodford said. ''So we need to determine what types of information are essential in getting out and what types of information that we might be able to provide in a given time.''
And, like Perry, Woodford said his response to the information request was justified by his dislike for the surveyor's demeanor. He cited the person's ''very passive-aggressive'' behavior and initial refusal to give her name.
He also said he worries about the motives behind information requests following the terrorist attacks. ''And since 9-11, really, you have concerns about who these individuals are, and are they there under some other auspice besides getting these records?''
Charles Brown, superintendent of the Lewistown public schools in Fergus County, recently took a class in legal policies for superintendents and school administrators. He said he's not surprised that school officials were unclear about public-records requests. But he said he believes most refusals are based in ignorance, not defiance, of the law. In fact, one of his secretaries in Fergus County mistakenly told the citizen seeking information that neither the salary amount nor the contract was public, and Brown said even school administrators can be fuzzy on records law.
Half the superintendents and administrators in Brown's legal policies class, for example, recently said no when asked if their contracts were public, he said. ''And of course the professor lined them up on that real quick, but there is some confusion.''