Oklahoma Watch sues Epic Charter Schools for open records

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OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – Nonprofit news organization, Oklahoma Watch, is taking Epic Charter Schools to court to obtain one of the co-founder’s emails. 

“All we’re asking for, on behalf of the public, are records that already belong to us,” said Oklahoma Watch Executive Director Ted Streuli said.

Last year, Oklahoma Watch requested co-founder Ben Harris’ emails from January 2019 through July 25, 2020. 

The taxpayer funded charter school said it would hand the documents over, but it would cost Oklahoma Watch $40,691.26. EPIC said that money would cover the cost of supplies and labor.

“We were surprised it was that high certainly,” Streuli told News 4. “It’s an old tactic that entities use when they don’t want to deliver public records that they’re required to use for the public.” 

Hoping for a lower price tag, Oklahoma Watch narrowed down the search to just June 20 to August 30th, 2019.

EPIC responded it would be $1,604 for the so-called copy charges and $3,208 for legal review. That comes out to be a $4,812 charge.

“They invent charges to go along with it to make it prohibitive in one way or another to get those documents,” said Streuli.

The request for the emails were all made under the Open Records Act.

“Let me just say it’s highly suspicious,” said Media Law Expert Bob Nelon. “That seems like an extraordinarily  high amount for the direct cost they would experience in producing the documents.”

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Nelon told News 4, there can be a charge for copies, but it’s capped at $0.25 per-page. Those funds are to cover supplies like paper and printer ink.

“Epic cannot charge the cost of the employee to pull the documents in the first place and make them available and if all the reporter is doing is looking at them at an epic location there should be no cost at all,” Nelon said.

“The idea that you have to photocopy emails is absurd to us. It’s 2021. All you have to do is click forward and certainly you can run a search of text for anything that might be inappropriate for a public venue,” said Streuli.

EPIC Charter Schools sent News 4 this statement:

“While the school has not seen the lawsuit, our open records policy, like the Oklahoma Department of Education’s, allows for the recovery of costs, to include legal support, for requests that cause excessive disruption. Under federal laws including HIPPA and FERPA, public schools are required to protect personnel and student data. A broad request for all emails requires a legal review of those documents to ensure compliance with federal privacy laws. That review costs money. The issue here is whether the organization requesting those documents should foot that bill or whether that financial burden falls to the taxpayers. Legal precedent is clear that it is inappropriate for us to give away taxpayer dollars.”

“We’re not asking for medical records — we’re not asking for student records — all we’re asking for is email communication from the cofounder which even epic acknowledges is public record,” Streuli said.

Now, Oklahoma Watch is letting the courts decide if EPIC should hand the documents over.

“Either epic will agree to produce the documents either without cost or some cost permitted by the open records act or the court will order them to do so,” said Nelon.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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