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Investigative Unit: La. Dept. of Education spends thousands in litigation over public records

11 months 1 week 13 hours ago November 19, 2015 Nov 19, 2015 Thursday, November 19 2015 November 19, 2015 4:12 PM in News
Source: Associated Press
By: Chris Nakamoto

BATON ROUGE - Tonight, there are serious questions about decisions being made to prevent you from seeing public information at the Louisiana Department of Education.

The Investigative Unit uncovered the Department of Education is willing to spend whatever it costs to prevent people from getting that information. Over the past five years, the Department of Education settled multiple lawsuits for records they refuse to turn over. When a judge got involved, he ordered them to turn the public documents over immediately.

At least one judge in Baton Rouge, is beginning to get tired of the Department of Education withholding public information. He used strong language in a recent case ordering the department to turn over records. To this day, we've learned they still haven't, and that's costing you big money.

It's becoming an all too routine sight in Baton Rouge. A group of state leaders from the Department of Education leaving the courthouse over lawsuits tied to public documents they are refusing to turn over. Attorneys leaving the courthouse from the Department of Education declined to answer any questions when they left the courthouse.

The lawsuits date back several years and all are related to the Department of Education refusing to turn over public documents.

"The only motivation I know of is to further secrecy in government," Attorney J. Arthur Smith said.

Smith has filed five lawsuits on behalf of clients against the department. He's won four out of five. The fifth one went before a Judge today and got pushed back to an undetermined date.

"It's over and over and over again," Smith said. "They cannot obtain public records within a reasonable time period."

Mike Deshotels is a former educator who now writes blogs about education. Deshotels has encountered enormous push back from the department trying to get public documents. He's filed four lawsuits against the Department of Education.

"I have a feeling that they don't appreciate this," Deshotels said. "It's not their choice. This is public information."

The lawsuits date back a few years. In one from 2013, the Department of Education agreed to settle for $6,300 for not turning over records a judge ruled were public. A year later, the DoE agreed to pay $2,500 in another settlement, plus $800 of court costs. Months later, another one, $3,200 paid out by the state.

Weeks ago, a judge got quite tired of them continuing to withhold public records. He said in his ruling the Louisiana Department of Education was "arbitrary and capricious" in their failure to produce the information. The Department of Education is settling that case as well, but it's still pending. We're told it could be the most money yet, upwards of $20,000.

Meanwhile, all of the information Mike Deshotels has been requesting has been numerical data, things that would never identify a student.

"Simple statistics like graduation rates, numbers of graduates and various information relative to teacher evaluations, that has been very difficult to get, and they delay it," Deshotels said.

Jason France is a former employee at the Department of Education.

"I was in charge of filling the data requests and what we were told is after John White got there is, we wouldn't provide data anymore to folks who weren't friendly to us because it gave them ammunition," France said.

France left his job four years ago, after he says he could no longer tolerate what was going on with the public records being withheld.

"We were told not to fill them, and we would only fill the ones that were cleared by higher-ups," France said.

When the WBRZ Investigative Unit asked him if he had specific instructions not to fulfill public records requests, France said, "yes, all the time."

The Department of Education released the following statement to the Investigative Unit: "We will respect and uphold all court rulings. At the same time, we will continue to fight to protect the privacy rights of students. Privacy is the law of our state and nation, and we will do everything we can to ensure every child's right to confidentiality."

However, people like Deshotels and his attorney say this isn't about confidentiality. Instead, they think it's suppression of information the department doesn't want you to see.

"All I want is the State Department of Education to start cooperating," Deshotels said. "We don't need to be in court all the time. That is a terrible waste of taxpayer money."

There was no date rescheduled for when all sides will be back in court on this most recent lawsuit. We're told it could result in another settlement costing you even more money.

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