Sauk Prairie School District refuses to hand over public documents

By: 
Joe Block

The Sauk Prairie School District is refusing to release a copy of its Crisis Manual, or Continuity of Organizational Operations Plan, to the Star News. The manual was approved by the board at their May 8 meeting. The manual is a public document, and the public and press are entitled to a copy, per state statute.

According to the District, “The Continuity of Organizational Operations Plan (COOP) provides the District with the capability of conducting its essential operations under all threats and conditions with or without warning. Having a plan to recover from any type of disaster regardless of the severity and consequences of the emergency is critical to recovery of operations and can minimize the impact on the District’s teaching and learning, personnel, facilities, technology, transportation, food service, and other functional resources.”

On June 10, the Star News asked Superintendent Jeff Wright for a copy. The Star News told Wright it had no intention of writing an article on the Manual, nor printing it.

Wright forwarded the request into Melissa Sumwalt, Administrative Assistant to Superintendent and School Board. On June 11, Sumwalt said in an email, “Unfortunately, we are not able to share that info as it’s confidential and not subject to release under State public records laws.” She attached a copy of a District policy, which read in part:

“The Superintendent shall recommend the COOP for Board of Education review and approval; however, the COOP shall be considered a confidential document not subject to release under State public records laws and accordingly no copies shall be provided for public review during the adoption process.”

Wisconsin Open Records Law states, “

“[I]t is declared to be the public policy of this state that all persons are entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those officers and employees who represent them.”

Matt Geiger, Executive Editor of News Publishing (and the Star News) had the following to say:

“Historically, the school districts have always been quick to provide copies of their emergency response plans, which are public records, when we request them. Some school officials have, on occasion, asked that our newspapers be selective in which parts of the plans we publish, but they have always acknowledged that we, and by extension the public, have the right to see them in their entirety.” 

As for the District’s policy, second half states that “no copies shall be provided for public review during the adoption process.” The Star News’ request occurred after the adoption process.

On June 12, the Star News emailed the District, writing:

“After speaking to the Wisconsin Newspaper Association Attorney, I’d like some clarification about the denial of my request for the continuity plan. Per [Court decision] Hempel, 2005 WI 120, the denial must be specific and sufficient. In this case, it’s unclear what “a confidential document not subject to release under State public records laws” refers to. What statutes or case law support that?”

“I’ll also note your document states “No copies shall be provided for public review during the adoption process.” My request was made on 6/9/2020, after the plan was adopted by the board.”

“When it comes to open records requests, the burden is on the legal custodian to explain specifically why the request is denied.”

As of Tuesday, June 16, the Star News has not received a response from the District.

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