Stenehjem: Belcourt school district violated open records law

North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem has ruled that the Belcourt School District violated the state’s open records law by failing to provide copies of records within a reasonable period of time.

According to the written opinion, a citizen emailed an open records on March 31 request asking for recorded audio files form all school board meetings from September to the present. She sent follow-up emails on April 1, April 2, and April 12. The school district provided her with records on April 15, but the records did not include audio from an Oct. 18 special meeting. The Oct. 18 recording was later turned over to the citizen on May 24.

At the time the citizen made the request, the school district was under audit and was in turmoil over a number of other events. The school superintendent had directed all open record requests to go through her to ensure that nothing would be disclosed that should not be because of the audit. According to the opinion, the superintendent received the open records request on April 1, then forwarded it to the district’s human resources director on April 4 and then to an IT employee who had the recordings and is responsible for copying the recordings to a disc. The superintendent was then out of the office on April 4 and 5 and again on April 8 and 9 and was then placed on suspension on April 9. School personnel did not know who was responding to the request. During the same time period, the governor suspended two Belcourt school board members and the school was “overwhelmed with many community, election, legislative bills, and safety matters” leaving the school employees “consumed by various matters that had to be attended to.”

However, Stenehjem wrote that the district violated the law by failing to provide an explanation or legal authority for why the Oct. 18 recording had been withheld on April 15. It only explained that the board needed a legal consultation when the citizen followed up and asked why the Oct. 18 recording had not been released. The citizen only received the recording almost two months after she made the request, which Stenehjem wrote was too long.

Stenehjem wrote that the Belcourt School District is to use materials on the Attorney General’s website to determine how to respond to open records requests in the future.