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As trust recedes, parents and conservative activists target N.H. school districts with right-to-know requests

photo of boxes on a table
Documents responsive to a single Right-to-Know request sit waiting for review.

Every public records request filed with the public school system serving Exeter and surrounding towns gets forwarded to Superintendent David Ryan. Prior to COVID, he says, those so-called "right-to-know' requests would trickle in. Now, it's more like a flood.

“Since COVID, and really since June of 2021, I’ve received up to 50 requests,” says Ryan, who has led SAU 16 since 2018.

The right-to-know requests read like a road map of all the complaints and concerns some parents and conservative activists in New Hampshire currently have with public education. There have been records requests related to pandemic policies, including masking and remote learning. Then, there are requests related to diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, and critical race theory.

And SAU 16 is not alone. NHPR reviewed right-to-know logs and spoke with multiple school superintendents who declined to comment because they didn’t want to be inundated with even more public records requests. At least one school district now posts its logof requests on its homepage, detailing requests for huge volumes of emails or other records. In some cases, the requester has not even bothered to go pick up the files when they’re completed.

A portion of a Right-to-Know request submitted to a public school.
Todd Bookman
A portion of a Right-to-Know request submitted to a public school.

School districts don’t traditionally have a staff member standing by to complete document requests. When someone asks for months or years worth of emails, contracts or training materials, that can trigger a review of thousands of pieces of paper, with each page requiring review for potential redactions. The work then falls on school staff.

“I can't begin to imagine the money— it’s a lot of money—but it's a lot of time away from what we are supposed to be doing, which is teaching kids, and improving the work we are doing in the classroom with teachers and students,” says Ryan.

Todd Bookman

SAU 16 has brought some of this scrutiny on itself. That includes the time school leaders chose to mark the hands of students at a prom with a Sharpie based on vaccine status, which generated right-to-knows, as well as an investigation.

One of the people championing the use of public records requests is himself a frequent subject of them. New Hampshire Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, who has warned about biases seeping into public education, has used public speaking events to guide parents through the process of filing. On a national level, conservative groups like Judicial Watch post videos encouraging the use of Right-to-Knows to root out what they dub “indoctrination” inside of public schools.

The public’s right to know what their government is up to is backed by statuteand enshrined in the state constitution. Reporters and residents, businesses and political operatives, have long used right-to-know requests to seek information. NHPR files them all the time.

They’re also a way for critics to attempt to cast a negative light on government.

Todd Bookman

“You are a public institution. You are in charge of children, and everything you do in that school district should be as transparent as possible,” said Ann Marie Banfield, a longtime conservative activist on education policy in New Hampshire.

Banfield estimates she files about 10 right-to-know requests per year, often bloggingabout the request or copying media outlets when she submits them.

She believes school districts would better serve residents if they proactively posted materials, including classroom curriculum, surveys, and COVID policies.

“We have a serious breakdown in communication, and this is driving what appears to be a lack of trust,” she said. “And this isn’t good.”

School districts counter that they’re not trying to hide anything. Scott Laliberte, superintendent in Londonderry, has watched three to four right-to-know requests per year swell to 30. Parents who used to just pick up the phone to ask him a question now fire off a formal records request instead. There’s no more good faith, he says.

“It certainly feels antagonistic, at times,” Laliberte said. "When you see a spike in the frequency of that nature, yeah, it can feel kind of negative.”

Negative on both sides: for those who say the schools can’t be trusted, and are quick to submit a right-to-know requests, and for the educators and staff struggling to meet the very real costs of filling all those requests.

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.
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