Citizen sets deadline for school district in delivering overdue salary records

Under California law, government agencies have ten days to fulfill public information requests, but as of last week, in response to a citizen’s inquiry, the Glendale Unified School District has not supplied full records of employees who make more than $100,000. -DB

Glendale News Press
November 23, 2009
By Max Zimbert

GLENDALE — Brian Ellis’ months-long quest for a list of Glendale Unified School District employees who make more than $100,000 per year remains unfulfilled. Legal experts say the delay could run afoul of the state’s public information law.

Ellis, a Glendale resident and husband of a former board of education member, began asking for the list in August, and submitted a formal public information request Oct. 5. Under California law, public agencies have 10 days to respond to such requests, but can have an extension. So far, Ellis’ request has gone unfulfilled, exposing the school district to possible legal action.

“It seems extraordinary for them to take this long on what should be a very simple request with readily accessible information that has been clearly a matter of public record,” said Terry Francke, who was executive director and general counsel for the California First Amendment Coalition for 14 years and founder of Californians Aware, a nonpartisan nonprofit that promotes government transparency.

Glendale Unified Supt. Michael Escalante said the most recent information would be delivered to Ellis within days. Ellis addressed school board members last week to request the records.

“I’ve got to pull it from different places and get it together, but I haven’t made it a priority,” Escalante said. “He’s due that information . . . I just have to give it the priority of getting it done this week.”

Ellis’ hunt began at a summertime homeowners association meeting with school board Vice President Greg Krikorian.

“I said I appreciate your question and concern,” Krikorian said. “I passed on his request to appropriate staff members to handle it. If it’s not handled properly, I pass that on to the superintendent. I said, ‘Please handle this as soon as possible without affecting the everyday education of our students and handling the present budget crisis we’re in.’”

District officials provided 2006-07 salary figures last fall, but have not furnished the most recent information to match Ellis’ request. Salaries for 2009-10 become available in July, district officials said.

Ellis has given district officials until Dec. 1 to match his inquiry before filing a lawsuit.

“I’m not hesitant to sue to compel because it is a public record, and I know in the long run the court will rule in our favor and they’ll pay the attorney’s bill,” Ellis said. “I would rather have them do what’s right and provide the materials than take on the extra expense.”

Ellis could file an action and it could quickly trigger the release of information from the district, but whether the district would owe him for attorney’s fees is unclear, Francke said.

“One case held that when the record shows an agency has been making a protracted but good-faith effort to find all the records that were responsive to request, but didn’t quite get all of them before the suit was filed, the plaintiff is not entitled to fees,” Francke said. “If the paper trail on this were to appear to a court to represent artificial delay, let’s say, then there’s a good chance the requester could get his fees up to the point of filing the action.”

Ellis said the delays were making him think district administrators were deliberately keeping secrets.

“There’s information they may not want to get out because it might be embarrassing for them,” he said. “If that’s true, let them dig their own hole.”

District officials said about 125 to 150 employees make more than $100,000, of which some are administrators and others are teachers. The district employs about 2,800 people. One or two employees make more than $200,000, Krikorian said.

Escalante’s salary was more than $273,000, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Education survey released earlier this year.

“I look forward to seeing the newest numbers too,” Krikorian said.

Ellis’ wife, Pamela Ellis, served 12 years on the Glendale Unified School District Board of Education until deciding not to seek reelection in 2007.

“It’s safe to say Pam Ellis has a good understanding of our budgets,” Krikorian said.

She said his request was a reflection of his determination.

“It’s him, it’s not me. I did my 12 years,” Pamela Ellis said. “He asked a question, and when they didn’t answer, he persisted. It shouldn’t be Earth-shattering information, but taxpayers have a right to know what their tax dollars are being spent for, and that’s all this is. There is no agenda.”

Copyright 2009  Glendale News Press