Superintendent Jeff Porter is under fire in SAD 51, as this sign outside the district office in Cumberland shows. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

A North Yarmouth parent is suing School Administrative District 51 for access to public records pertaining to remote learning, a new development in a battle over school reopening that has polarized residents and fueled a recall campaign of school board members.

Kristi Wright is being represented by her husband, Patrick Strawbridge, a lawyer who represented former President Donald Trump last year in a case involving the release of his federal income tax returns and who also has represented former Gov. Paul LePage in state and federal cases.

Wright, who has two children in SAD 51, asked the district for documents related to staff shortages, distancing capacity and the resumption of in-person learning on March 30 and was told the records would be ready by mid-July, according to the lawsuit filed Wednesday in Cumberland County Superior Court. She has argued the time frame is not in keeping with Maine’s public records law, which says records must be provided in a “reasonable time,” and has asked for them to be provided no later than May 21 so voters will have access to them before the June 8 school board election.

The lawsuit comes amid a bitter debate over the return to more in-person learning in the district, which includes Cumberland and North Yarmouth, and tensions between residents and school officials that date to last summer. Some residents have recently called for the resignation of the superintendent and a group of parents has started a signature-gathering effort to recall four school board members.

“The district works hard to respond as quickly as it reasonably can to FOAA requests,” Superintendent Jeff Porter said in an email Thursday. “In this case, as in all cases, we believe that we have complied with the law by acknowledging this large request, providing a good faith estimate as to when we will be able to complete the request, and working to provide all relevant public records on or before the estimated date of completion.”

Wright, meanwhile, said her request stemmed from a concern about a lack of urgency and transparency on the part of SAD 51 schools as surrounding districts moved more quickly to reopen. Most students in SAD 51 are in-person two days per week. Earlier this month the school board approved a plan to remain hybrid for the remainder of the school year but increase in-person time for high-needs students to four days per week starting Monday.

“I’d like to see SAD 51 as committed to resuming in-person instruction for all students, whose parents feel comfortable, as the neighboring school districts have (been) for their students,” Wright said in an email.

In March, as an ad hoc committee was discussing the return plans, Wright filed her public records request for documents related to a number of school reopening issues including staff shortages, space and distancing constraints, academic performance of students and correspondence with teachers unions.

She received a response April 7 from Scott Poulin, the district’s director of finance, operations and human resources, estimating it would take 16 hours to search and retrieve, redact and compile the documents. Poulin said the district would compile the records but over the next few months they would also be busy with annual budget preparation, union negotiations, pandemic issues and “the usual business of the district office.” He estimated the records would be ready by July 15.

Wright objected to that time frame, saying it was not reasonable, and pointed to upcoming school board elections as a reason the district should act with more urgency to provide the records.

“They touch upon issues of school financing and reopening that are front and center in a rigorous public debate about the workings of the school system,” Wright said in a letter to Poulin. “And they will no doubt help influence decisions voters will make in upcoming elections, including the budget validation referendum and school board election set for June 8, 2021.”

After another exchange of emails, Wright agreed to provide a narrower list of eight different items and asked the district to provide them by May 3, though Poulin said he could not guarantee a response within her time frame and would work to provide her with “at least a partial response” ahead of June 8.

What’s considered “reasonable time” in Maine’s public records law varies with the nature and complexity of requests, and there’s no firm deadline for when agencies have to provide records, said Sigmund Schutz, an expert on open meetings and public records law and attorney for the Press Herald.

“The facts and circumstances are driven by the nature and complexity of the request and the resources of the public agency tasked with responding,” Schutz said. While setting a firm deadline in the law could be beneficial in some cases, it could also drag out requests in others.

Sometimes when a lawsuit is filed it will spur an agency to act more quickly to fulfill a request, Schutz said. An upcoming election also adds weight to the argument an agency should act with urgency in filling requests related to decisions made by office holders, he said.

“The reasonable amount of time is an issue that’s plagued FOAA for a while,” Schutz said. “With no set deadline different agencies take different attitudes with how they want to respond to requests. It may be days for one agency and weeks for another.”

The public records lawsuit comes amid broader concerns related to school reopening plans in SAD 51 that in recent weeks escalated to the effort to recall four school board members. At the April 6 school board meeting, where the board unanimously approved the plan to stick with hybrid learning for the remainder of the year, more than 40 parents spoke during public comment. Signs calling for the district to “Fire Porter” have popped up around town in Cumberland.

Wright said the contentiousness stems in part from “unhelpful and borderline condescending memos” from the superintendent to parents who are advocating for their children in the reopening debate. “And certainly the district’s unexplained desire to put off responding to the FOAA request until after the election seems inconsistent with a board and administration that is willing to stand by its response and has nothing to hide,” she said.

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