By Rick Boettger

It is not easy to get the Monroe County School District to comply with Florida’s Sunshine Law. I have spent weeks and too much cash prying a test sample of emails between just two people, Christina McPherson to the HR director Ramon Hawkins, during the period she received the now much-publicized $10,000 raise that the Board had not approved. I have read these 93 emails, and shall report the dark secrets I found burrowing in the bowels of the District’s business.

I frankly don’t give a damn about Christina’s raise. She probably deserves it, and the District I believe is saving a bunch of my tax dollars in having her do an extra job for a relatively small increment, instead of hiring someone new. What got me involved was the district’s holding up schools watchdog Larry Murray for $550 up to $4400 to see their email records regarding the raise decision.

Remember, last week I asked what I thought might be embarrassing questions of our city planning department about the setback at the new West Marine. I spoke to the honcho in charge within minutes, and he backed up his cogent explanation with accurate documents, for free via email, that same afternoon. That led me to trust their professional integrity, and I accepted their decision.

The opposite with the school district. Simple salary schedules and emails are withheld, Public Record Requests (PRR) are not acknowledged, and people like Larry and board member Ed Davidson are castigated openly at board meetings as “wanting to hear themselves talk on the radio” for their important requests about HOB’s billing issues and Superintendent Mark Porter’s one-man raise decisions. The Board, instead of wanting to address serious issues, tried to make the questions go away by telling Porter to charge money to people like me and Larry who simply want to see the information that We the People own, as required by strict laws.

Larry was told that the expense was due to having to apply over 100 “exceptions” to the Sunshine Law. It would take a highly paid professional hours to go over every email, redacting everything exceptionable. But this was a a smokescreen. The exceptions are overwhelmingly to protect law enforcement officers, or people with AIDS or other health secrets. School district information is actually held to an especially high standard of transparency.

I knew the “exceptions” would barely apply to the District emails Larry wanted, so I put it to the test. I made a PRR for the cheapest portion, just $25 for, supposedly, “93” emails. There were minor delays in getting a response, but once I paid, I got a CD less than a week later.

The first problem was, the CD was unreadable. I spent over $100 on my computer guru’s trying to crack it, but it contained only empty sub-directories. Undeterred, I asked for pdf printouts. Happily, I got those within an hour, and pored through them over a long lunch.

Exactly as I thought. No incriminating information, and only a single redaction, with an incorrect statutory citation. Basically, working in Admin in the District is boring, if their emails are any window into their souls. Oddly, there were only 30 distinct emails. The other 63 were all exact copies of those 30, as many as five of a single one.

The only suspicious email was, unguardedly, labeled “Confidential Information Enclosed…” No Junior Detective badge required here. It was Christina thanking Ramon for having sent her something, but whatever he sent her was not in the body of her email. So, thinking , “Ah HAH! This is easy. My next column is writing itself already.”

I zipped out a new PRR for that single “Confidential” email from Ramon to Christina. But lo and behold, in less than an hour they sent it to me, with its vital attachments. It was simply the contract containing the famous raise. Oh, maybe there is a question about the date it’s signed or not, but to me, the big news is the school district’s acting like the planning department. Is it just me, or is the Sunshine Law warming our public servants’ hearts and minds here?

So maybe I won’t be filing that string of mandamus actions, lawsuits to enforce compliance, which I thought would be necessary. Shucks. Out of my new job, and have to keep writing columns on other stuff.

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