Education

NC schools agency has new way to track public records requests, other feedback

Posted March 18

Public Records
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— What films are used in sex ed classes? How many students get free and reduced lunch? What are the names, job titles and email addresses of every public school employee in North Carolina?

Those are just a few of the public records requests the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction has received in the past three months since it launched its new online communications tool called "Let's Talk!"

The tool allows parents, teachers, students, taxpayers and staff to submit questions or feedback about 30 different topics. The most popular topics include:

  • Licensure and employment
  • State Board of Education
  • Parent questions
  • Exceptional Children's services
  • K-12 curriculum and instruction
  • Public records requests

Questions and feedback are automatically routed to state school employees assigned to handle specific topics. Their goal is to respond within five business days, according to Vanessa Jeter, communications director for the state Department of Public Instruction.

"We can't always fully respond in five days. Sometimes requests are complex and take a little longer," said Jeter, who handles all the public records requests. "We really see it as one more way for the public to contact us and get a response."

Triangle resident and conservative blogger Andrea Dillon, who often writes about education issues on her blog, "Lady Liberty 1885," says she has submitted dozens of public records requests to the state Department of Public Instruction over the years.

She submitted one of her latest requests through Let's Talk in January.

"Hello, I would like a copy of the letter sent to our state by the U.S. Department of Education on testing, which warns of the loss of funding should N.C. not comply with the specified participation threshold," Dillon wrote on Jan. 31.

Later that day, Jeter responded with a copy of the letter and some additional information for context.

WRAL News reported on the letter last month and found that more than 300 public schools across the state failed to test enough students last year, causing North Carolina to receive the warning letter from the U.S. Department of Education.

Although Dillon received the letter she requested the same day, she said the state Department of Public Instruction has typically been slow to respond to her requests.

"A request submitted by email could take anywhere from a month to a nearly a year," Dillon wrote, when reached by email last week. "Having said that, I believe the main contact I deal with at DPI (Vanessa Jeter) has a lot on her plate and does the best she can. She has even responded to me after hours and on weekends at times. I value her assistance and I do not assign any blame to her or her team, really."

Jeter says she does often respond on weekends. She'll turn on football or NASCAR, get out her laptop and work on records requests and other items she needs to catch up on. She compares Let's Talk to "a pet you always have to feed."

But WRAL News found that not every request has been responded to promptly.

Jeremy Serna, a systems and analytics manager with Charter School Growth Fund based in Colorado, submitted a public records request through Let's Talk in December. He asked for a complete count of students who are eligible for free and reduced lunch "broken out by grade level for the entire state of North Carolina, each district, and every school."

Jeter responded to him four business days later and said she would check with accounting staff and let him know more.

WRAL News emailed Serna last week to ask if he was pleased with the agency's response to his request. He wrote back and said the last time he heard from Jeter was on Dec. 22, when she promised to check with accounting staff.

"I never heard another word from her, so I would say I am displeased with it," he wrote.

WRAL News asked Jeter about Serna's request, and she agreed to check on it. Less than an hour later, she wrote back to say that she was sending him the information. "It has been fulfilled today," she wrote.

Of the 68 public records requests that have been submitted through Let's Talk since December, many are not true public records. WRAL News reviewed the list of requests and found people asking for various items not covered by the public records law, including these inquiries:

  • What is the process for nominating and winning Teacher of the Year?
  • I need a copy of my high school diploma.
  • My wife needs a copy of her most recent pay stub but cannot get into the employee portal.

Despite being off topic, Jeter responds to them all.

"A lot of people send in questions about teacher licensure. I see a lot of questions from people wanting old transcripts," she said. "We do spend some time redirecting people to the right place."

Jeter says the Department of Public Instruction spent about $15,000 on the Let's Talk system. The agency purchased it from a company called K12 Insight, based in Herndon, Va. There are recurring costs to keep it running, but Jeter wasn't able to provide an exact amount.

The tool is still a work in progress. Dillon, the blogger who filed a request in January, said she is glad the agency is using the new web portal for public records requests and other feedback.

"However, it makes keeping track of the requests on the end of the requestor a bit cumbersome since the automatic response one receives when making a request does not have any of the details of the request nor the topic in the email," Dillon said. "On that note, I think DPI needs to refine the tool they are using for requests."

Jeter said they may make tweaks to the tool, depending on feedback from users. For now, they are still getting used to using Let's Talk.

"We are still learning," Jeter said. "I think it’s a good demonstration that we do want to help people when they have questions or concerns. It's given us one other little window into what public concerns are."

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