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APS ordered to pay $400K for violating state records law

Albuquerque Public Schools offices in Uptown. (Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Albuquerque Public Schools has been ordered to pay more than $400,000 to two news organizations for failing to turn over public records in a timely manner and not adhering to deadlines in responding to requests for documents related to former Superintendent Winston Brooks’ departure.

The judge awarded the Journal $293,625 after finding the school district violated the state Inspection of Public Records Act in its handling of requests made by the newspaper in 2014. KOB-TV, which made similar requests, was awarded $118,000.

Judge Nancy Franchini also ruled that the Journal and KOB are entitled to costs and reasonable attorney fees.

APS said it will appeal.

The news organizations joined to sue APS, and a trial was held in the case on Feb. 22-23.

Journal Editor Karen Moses praised Monday’s decision.

“With this ruling, the court has sent a clear message of the importance of public bodies following the Inspection of Public Records Act,” she said. “Noncompliance of the state’s open records law has been a longstanding issue with APS. And when public bodies fail to follow the requirements for timely production of public records, the community is deprived of information that it is entitled to.”

The records requests were related to the abrupt resignation of Superintendent Brooks in August 2014 – two years before the end of his contract. Then-school board president Analee Maestas said at the time that during a closed meeting in July “a serious item of concern to Board members was raised and discussed.” She identified the issue as “a confidential personnel matter” and provided no other details.

She said she had hired an outside attorney to look into the matter. The attorney produced a report that remains secret to this day. The judge previously denied the Journal’s request to order the district to release the report, determining that it was exempt from disclosure.

The Journal also requested all billing records between APS and the attorney’s law firm, all documents generated by or received by members of the school board pertaining to Brooks’ termination, and all complaints or allegations of misconduct against Brooks and his wife.

KOB-TV requested all communication between school board members and the attorney and all emails and documents to or from members or employees regarding the attorney’s investigation report. The station also asked for all emails or communication between Brooks and an APS spokeswoman.

APS, through its record custodian Rigo Chavez – who had 17 years of experience handling public records requests – did not respond to the Journal or APS within deadlines set out in the Inspection of Public Records Act, Judge Franchini wrote in her ruling. Furthermore, she said, the district did not produce materials that should have been public under IPRA, including billing records, correspondence and complaints. She deemed many of the district’s actions to be “unreasonable.”

“After denying the request for the billing records, Mr. Chavez became aware that APS in fact possessed the bills,” Franchini wrote in the ruling. “Despite this, he did not produce them to the Journal or to KOB-TV.”

APS also had a spreadsheet documenting complaints against Brooks, which Franchini said is subject to IPRA. She ordered the school district to turn over the spreadsheet in the next 10 days.

APS spokeswoman Monica Armenta said the district will appeal the ruling.

“APS works diligently to be transparent in responding to all records requests, and this matter was no different,” Armenta said. “In this same case, the Court previously sided with APS and found that the District correctly withheld the investigatory report regarding former Superintendent Winston Brooks.”

Moses said the Journal intends to appeal the court’s ruling that the investigative report is protected from disclosure to the public.

“The Journal believes much of the report was factual information, which should be public, rather than protected opinion in a personnel file,” Moses said. “That factual information was used to determine that Brooks would be paid $350,000 in tax dollars as a buyout.”

Michelle Donaldson, the vice president and general manager of KOB-TV, stressed that public records laws are there to “ensure transparency and accountability.”

“A school district cannot pick and choose when to obey the law, especially when it’s writing six-figure checks to outgoing personnel,” Donaldson said. “People cannot have faith in the system when the laws are ignored. It’s regrettable that it took so many years for a public school district to get the message that the public deserves transparency and honesty.”

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