A&A: Are not for profit charter schools required to comply with the CPRA?

Q: Under the CA Public Records Act, are not-for-profit charter schools required to comply? Are any not-for-profit (public, private, charter, etc.) required to comply?

A: I’ll address your questions in reverse order.  With respect to your second question regarding whether schools are subject to the PRA depends on a few things.  Generally in our experience, non-profit charter schools that are funded with taxpayer dollars are, more often than not, subject to the California Public Records Act (“PRA”).

On the other hand, private schools and their governing boards usually do not meet the definition of a “legislative body of a local agency” as required to make the school subject to the PRA.  And of course, traditional public schools are always subject to the PRA because they are quintessential governmental agencies.

In order to determine whether a school is subject to the PRA depends on whether it is a “legislative body of a local agency,” Gov’t Code 6252(a).  The PRA borrows its definition from the Brown Act (California’s open meeting law), which provides that a particular “legislative body” would be subject to both the Brown Act and the Public Records Act if it was:

(1) “created by the elected legislative body in order to exercise authority that may lawfully be delegated by the elected governing body to a private corporation, limited liability company, or other entity;” or

(2) if it receives “funds from a local agency and the membership of whose governing body includes a member of the legislative body of the local agency appointed to that governing body as a full voting member by the legislative body of the local agency.”

As to your first question,  a non-profit charter school would be subject to the PRA if it fits the parameters outlined above and was either:

(1) created by another body subject to the Brown Act (i.e., the public school district’s school board) to exercise authority that may lawfully be delegated by that body to a private entity (i.e., operation of charter schools); or

(2) the school receives funds from a local agency subject to the Brown Act and at least one voting member of the public charter school governing body is a member of the legislative body of the local agency subject to the Brown Act who was appointed to that position by the legislative body of the local agency.

If you determine the non-profit charter school is subject to the PRA, then you can request public records from them. Public records —which include “any writing containing information relating to the conduct of the public’s business prepared, owned, used, or retained by any state or local agency regardless of physical form or characteristics,” Gov’t Code § 6252(e) — are presumed to be open to the public and must be disclosed unless a specific provision of the Act or other law exempts them from disclosure.

There are two methods by which you, as a member of the public, can request and access records.

First, you can request to inspect records in person by invoking Government Code § 6253(a), which provides, “[p]ublic records are open to inspection at all times during the office hours of the state or local agency and every person has a right to inspect any public record, except as hereafter provided.”  Under this method, you should presumptively be able to walk into an agency’s office during regular hours and be given access to public records upon request.

Second, a request for copies of records may be made (whether in person or in writing ), although when this provision is invoked, the agency is given time – typically 10 days – to respond for the request and provide the requester with copies.  Gov’t Code § 6253(b).

The PRA requires the agency assist you in making a focused and effective request that reasonably describes identifiable records.  Gov’t Code § 6253.1.

Additionally, if the agency refuses to provide a certain record it must cite any exemptions it is claiming and describe how the exemption applies to the records.  Gov’t Code § 6253(c).  The challenge with any PRA request is ensuring that it is broad enough to capture all the records you are seeking, and yet focused enough so that the agency will know what to look for.  The first step, of course, is simply making the request.  When I make a request, I typically first consider what categories of information I’m seeking – e.g., the subject areas I’m interested in – and then ask for any and all records related to those categories (bullet points work well for breaking down the categories).  From there, hopefully the agency will work with you to focus your request so you get what you are looking for.

You can find more information about how to submit a Public Records Act request, including a sample letter, on this website.