Loudoun County Public Schools wins FOIA lawsuit
Sarah Stinger accused Wayde Byard, the public information officer for Loudoun County County Public Schools, and Stephen DeVita, the school's district counsel, of violating the Freedom of Information Act. Judge Deborah C. Welsh denied Stinger's Writ of Mandamus, stating that LCPS responded reasonably to Stinger's information request.
“Nothing has been presented to the court that the information isn't subject to availability,” Welsh said.
Stinger submitted her FOIA request after a statement made by Sam Adamo, the executive director of planning and legislative services for Loudoun County Public Schools. During a Jan. 2 School Board meeting, Adamo said the district had spent $1.7 million to $2 million searching for sites in western Loudoun for future schools HS-10, MS-10 and ES-25 with nothing to show for it. His comment prompted inquiries from multiple School Board members and a FOIA request from Stinger.
Stinger made her initial request Jan. 5 to Byard and after some confusion between the two, then sent another email Jan. 21 specifying she wanted all information electronically regarding the three schools. Stinger explained in court she believed electronically would be the easiest and cheapest method.
Byard then told Stinger the cost to retrieve the information would be $415.70.
According to Thomas Yetter, director of Financial Services for LCPS, retrieving the information would have required a senior accountant to extract the data from the 30-year-old FAMIS software system. The information would then have had to be reformatted to Excel, a process that would take an entire day.
“You have to download the data and reformat it manually,” Yetter explained to the court.
Stinger mailed Byard a $90 check, believing that to be enough to cover the costs of her requests. Byard mailed it back, telling her it was insufficient.
Stinger's attorney Robert Onheiser, a former LCPS School Board member, argued the school district has demonstrated a “particularized resistance” in getting Stringer information. Stringer previously took LCPS to court under FOIA and filed a complaint with the Department of Education in 2011.
But Julia Judkins, the counsel for the defense, said the history was irrelevant.
“By their own pleadings and stipulations, the focus is only on the Jan. 21 FOIA requests,” Judkins said.
“The Court doesn't have anything to say the cost of $415.70 is unreasonable,” Welsh said. “While your request is reasonable, the School Board's response is also reasonable.”
Stringer still feels the fee is unreasonable and plans to move her inquiry to the School Board.
“They did not make a reasonable response to my request. They gave me a big number so I'd go away,” Stinger said. “They weren't willing to work with me.”