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Albuquerque Public Schools has agreed to implement rigorous new policies and training for responding to public records requests under a settlement agreement approved by a judge on Tuesday.
The agreement also requires APS to pay $54,000 in damages, attorney fees and costs, and to respond to a series of public records requests made by a Rio Rancho woman.
District Judge Lisa Chavez Ortega approved the settlement as a stipulated agreement, meaning APS could face contempt of court proceedings if it fails to comply with the terms.
Parent Michelle Jenson of Rio Rancho filed a petition last month in 2nd Judicial District Court alleging that she received no responses from APS to three requests she made under the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act, or IPRA.
Chavez Ortega last month ordered APS to turn over the requested records or appear in court to contest the order.
Jenson’s attorney, Daniel Yohalem, negotiated the settlement agreement with attorneys for APS after the judge issued that order.
“The most novel part of this remedy is that (APS) agreed to adopt procedures and staffing policy to ensure that they don’t screw up again,” Yohalem said Wednesday in a phone interview.
“They have agreed to a process for addressing each new IPRA request,” he said. “They’ve agreed to training.”
By approving the settlement agreement as an order, the judge placed the settlement under the direct authority of the court, Yohalem said.
“Here, it is an order of the court,” he said. “The court has to review and approve it, and then the court will enforce it.” If APS fails to comply with the settlement, “that opens them up to a contempt of court proceeding. It’s a much stronger remedy.”
APS spokeswoman Monica Armenta said the district doesn’t comment on pending litigation.
“APS will abide by the ruling and meet standards that the court has set,” she said.
The settlement sets out a detailed process by which APS must handle public records requests, including “district wide policy and training.”
It also requires APS to employ “a sufficient number of records custodians, software and hardware” to comply with IPRA timelines.
The law gives the public the right to inspect records of state and local agencies on written request, with certain exceptions.
If access can’t be provided within three business days, the agency must send a letter explaining when the records will be available. But the records must be provided within 15 days unless the request is determined to be excessively broad and burdensome.
The settlement also requires APS to create a log that includes the date of the request, responses to deadlines and other information intended to keep records requests on track.
Shannon Kunkle, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said the policy outlined in the settlement offers a model for other large public agencies.
Many agencies could benefit from logging IPRA requests, she said, “especially large agencies where there are several different staff members who might be involved in the request process. Having this log, you can ensure that the right person has responded according to the deadlines.”
APS has faced complaints and court cases in the past for failing to comply with state transparency law.
A judge last year ordered APS to pay the Journal and KOB-TV more than $400,000 and nearly $215,000 for attorney fees and costs for failing to provide records and missing deadlines related to the departure of former Superintendent Winston Brooks.
In the current case, Jenson received no response to three records requests she submitted to APS between December 2020 and July 2021, according to her petition.
The requests seek data pertaining to students’ progress in school, including the number of registered students, how many had withdrawn, were home-schooled, transferred out of state or had dropped out.