News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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August 5, 2013

Public records key in Bennett grading scandal

Retention of emails opens door to discovery, but picture isn’t always clear

INDIANAPOLIS — In algebra, students are required to show the steps taken to come to their answer, in part because teachers need to see whether they grasp the concepts.

Indiana’s former state superintendent Tony Bennett hid his calculations when coming up with the school-grading formula last year, working backward to make the equation fit a predetermined answer: an “A” for Republican donor Christel DeHaan’s charter school. His staff was quietly asked to figure out the rest.

The only reason the grade-changing scandal was unveiled was because it was detailed in emails he never deleted from his computer.

The fallout has cost Bennett his seven-month tenure as education commissioner in Florida and launched a pair of state reviews into the validity of a school-grading system that’s at the center of a national education overhaul movement.

Bennett called the reports last week “malicious and unfounded” as he resigned in Florida, but school superintendents in Indiana said the emails finally began to give them the answers they so desperately searched for last year from Bennett and his team.

In Indiana, the state protects emails as public records. Jim Corridan, state archivist and director of the Indiana Commission on Public Records, points out that substantive emails — including any dealing with policy — must be saved for three years.

For the most part, emails can be legally “destroyed” after that time frame, and not every trivial note — like if Bennett had written his wife to say he’d be late for dinner — must be preserved.

But actually obtaining copies of crucial emails is a tough task, as state officials often rely on the “work product” exception to argue the missives should not be released.

When the Purdue University Board of Trustees appointed by then-Gov. Mitch Daniels chose him to run the university, information on his hiring was nearly impossible to come by.

The Lafayette Journal and Courier filed a complaint last year that the board violated the state’s open meetings law by holding an executive session at an undisclosed location in Chicago O’Hare International Airport. But the state’s public access counselor, also appointed by Daniels, determined that simply knowing the meeting would happen at the out-of-state location was open enough.

When the Indianapolis Star went looking for records of the deliberations over Daniels’ hiring, Purdue wrote back it had none, and even if it did, the public couldn’t see them.

This is not to say state government officials conduct all public business behind locked doors. Indiana does an exceptional job streaming committee meetings online and providing documents such as campaign donations and legislation in easily searchable formats online.

But official documents only provide the neatly prepared version of the story. And many times, they leave out critical information.

Local school superintendents who had their schools assessed by Bennett and his team last year, with the possibility of being taken over by the state or losing funding, found it incredibly hard to get straight answers. The widespread confusion over how the grades were calculated led Republican legislative leaders to send the “A-F” grading system back to the drawing board during the 2013 session.

While the Bennett emails begin to answer some of the confusion — and raise new questions — it still isn’t clear exactly what Bennett and his staff changed in the formula. That will take answers from a pair of state-level reviews.

And probably some more emails.

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