A Tampa father is suing Hillsborough County Public Schools Superintendent Addison Davis after being hit with an estimated cost of $8,020 for a public records request.
According to Hillsborough County Court records, Blake Warner, a 38-year-old father of a Mitchell Elementary Student, says he submitted a public records request on Oct. 26 for the district to “please produce all documents, emails, notes, etc., between school board employees (including attorneys and school board members) that are in regards to mask-mandates.” The requests’ time frame is “October 2019 to present.”
Hillsborough Schools says the request produced 70,000 pages. Florida has broad public records laws, including any official communication among public officials and employees. However, there are also a number of exemptions. And documents often need to be pulled and redacted for any exempted information before they can be viewed by the public. The average rate for redacting is about three pages per minute or 180 per hour. At that rate, the documents would take nearly 390 hours to prepare which gets charged at an hourly rate.
Warner also says he asked for the district’s Exceptional Student Education Contingency Plan Notebook and has still not received it. The district, however, said it was sent this week. He’s also suing over a “student records request” he says he did not get an answer to.
Court records show Warner asked to view the records in-person for free, which is also allowed under state law. However, that only applies after records have been pulled and redacted. They would also have to be printed for in-person viewing. And state law says records custodians can charge additional fees for printed pages. And even more charges can be levied if the request involves “extensive use of information technology resources or extensive clerical or supervisory assistance by personnel of the agency involved.”
But Hillsborough says it only charges for requests requiring more than 30 minutes of work and printed pages but not the “extensive use” fees.
Warner seeks monetary relief and wants the district to let him view the files for free, records show.
He says he was upset with the district’s mask policy. His son is on the autism spectrum and works with a speech therapist. His frustrations first began when schools shut down and offered a virtual option. He saw it as discriminatory.
“Merely closing the schools is not discrimination,” says Warner. “But if they open with a virtual option, but don’t take steps to make that more available to students with disabilities, then that is discrimination. How do you do speech therapy remotely? How do you do handwriting instruction remotely? You can’t. A lot of special education students got left behind.”
Those frustrations grew when Hillsborough instituted a mandatory mask policy at the start of the current school year. The policy has since been walked back. He initially requested a due process hearing with the district that was recently settled. He believes the district was aware that masking special education students could do harm and was discriminatory but proceeded anyway.
“I’m just some random Black guy in Tampa,” Warner says. “If I could realize all these harms to kids, I’m sure school board members and administrators could as well.”
Warner says he initiated the lawsuit when Hillsborough wouldn’t release the information during the hearing. It’s settled now and he says the district is “doing right by my son” but also believes it has become bigger than one child.
“Even if the case is settled, as a taxpayer and member of the community, people should know exactly what happened,” Warner says. “If people didn’t take precautions to reduce these harms they knew were possible, there should be political consequences.”
Florida Politics contacted Hillsborough Schools, but the district said it does not comment on pending litigation.