Seek and Ye Shall FOIA

collective bargaining agreements
The Mackinac Center for Public Policy obtained collective bargaining agreements (shown here) from most of Michigan's 600-plus K-12 and intermediate school districts by using the Freedom of Information Act. Economist Ludwig von Mises, author of Bureaucracy, looks on.

Have you ever wondered exactly how much your local public school spends on janitorial, food, maintenance, or other services? Were you ever curious about the cost of the health care benefits given to public school employees? Perhaps your district wants to issue more bonds to pay for school repair, but you believe that privatizing school support staff and re-directing the savings may be a more cost-effective way to accomplish this important goal.

But how do you show the difference between district and private sector costs when you don't know what your local schools pay their staff? Such information is available to every citizen provided he knows where and how to look for it.

But how do you show the difference between district and private sector costs when you don’t know what your local schools pay their staff? Such information is available to every citizen provided he knows where and how to look for it.

Michigan law contains a powerful provision known as the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). This law guarantees private citizens access to many government documents, including public-sector pay records, interdepartmental memos, and more. The FOIA is of immeasurable value to citizens seeking to learn more about the way their government works.

The following is a brief guide to filing a FOIA request with a government agency.

Step #1: Determine your needs. There is no sense in going on government fishing expeditions. Know why you are filing a FOIA, what you are looking for, and the name, address, and fax number of the agency's FOIA officer (where applicable).

Step #2: Make your request specific. Don't ask for all records pertaining to every school district employee if you need only salary data on security personnel. Such requests are needlessly time consuming. Government agencies may also charge a fee equal to the hourly wage (and benefits) of the staff member needed to fill the request multiplied by the number of hours it takes to comply with your request.

Step #3: Make your request clear. The Mackinac Center for Public Policy uses a stock opening phrase in its FOIA requests to ensure against ambiguity. Doing so may save time and administrative headaches by ensuring that the recipient has a clear understanding that you are submitting a request for information, and that it is backed by Michigan law. For example:

Pursuant to the Michigan Compiled Law Sections 15.231 et seq., and any other relevant statutes or provisions of your agency's regulations, I am making the following Freedom of Information request:

Please copy and send me any and all public records, including but not limited to, files, letters, documents, and/or memoranda of any kind maintained by your department or any other department or agency under your department's supervision, which relate to or mention:

After such an opening, you may list the specifics of your request and any advice you may have for the agency in question.

Step #4: Add a financial qualifier. As previously stated, agencies may charge a fee for each FOIA request they process. For many government agencies, that can easily exceed $10 per hour of time spent filling the request. You may be able to avoid a large charge with the following paragraph.

If you elect to charge fees, and if these fees exceed $50 for searching and reproducing the aforementioned materials, please notify me of the cost prior to filling this request. If the fees do not exceed $50, please fill this request and include an itemized invoice with the copied documents.

Step #5: Conclude with a legal reminder. FOIA requests must be filled within five business days. Government agencies can and do request extensions of up to 10 business days, but they may make only one such request. The following paragraph explains this:

I further request that if all of the above referenced documents cannot be provided within 5 days, as dictated by law, whatever documents can be assembled within 5 days of the request be mailed at that time. If an extension is required, please mail after each 5-day period the documents that can be assembled during that time. I will pay postage costs for these mailings if necessary.

Fax your letter to the agency in question and, if possible, print out a receipt. Mail the originals the same day. Remember to keep the fax receipt and copies of the FOIA together for future reference. All faxed requests become effective the following business day.

Most school districts and other government agencies recognize and respect FOIA. The Mackinac Center is happy to report that it has generally enjoyed good cooperation with various units of government with its many FOIA requests. Some public institutions are less than forthcoming. In such cases, legal action may need to be taken.

Noncompliance with FOIA may result in a judgement against an offending agency of $500 per violation plus any attorney's fees. Should a writ of mandamus (that is, a court order instructing the government to act) be required to compel a school board, district, or other government agency to comply with the law, a judge has the option of imposing punitive fines or other legal penalties for the offending parties.

The quality of any decision is usually linked to the quality of the information on which the decision is based. One reason that people often accept poor financial decisions by school boards or other government bodies is that they lack information about the true costs of various departments or programs. Use of FOIA can help place valuable data in the hands of parents or community activists who wish to ensure that their government is using scarce tax dollars in a cost-effective and prudent manner.