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FOIL Me

In order to learn more about charter school philanthropy and expenses, I needed to get copies of the annual financial audits that all charter schools are required to produce. Charter schools send these audits to their authorizers. For New York City schools, there are three authorizers: the NYC DOE, the State University of New York (SUNY), and the State Education Department (SED).

In this case, the NYC DOE has the good-government solution: all audits for DOE-authorized charter schools are available on the DOE website in PDF format.

SUNY and SED, on the other hand, do not have the audits available on their websites. Luckily, the people I interacted with at the two organizations were professional and courteous. They both gave the same advice: “You need to FOIL me.” FOIL refers to New York State’s Freedom of Information Law. As instructed, I sent an email requesting the documents, being careful to include the magic phrase “Freedom of Information Law”. In both cases, after about a week and a half, I received the documents.

SUNY gave me a link to a PDF file that I could temporarily access on their website. SED, on the other hand, only has the audits in paper form, so they had to mail a copy to me. Also, with SED, I had to pay 25 cents per page and they needed to receive a check before they could proceed. I hope they use the funds towards the purchase of a scanner.

Two questions are raised by this experience:

1. Why don’t SUNY and SED simply put these files on their websites?

2. Why do SUNY and SED make people “FOIL them” for these documents?

For both institutions SED, it is policy to require FOIL requests for information that is not available on their website. Apparently, it can be quite time-consuming to fulfill these requests, especially if the documents only exist in paper format. The FOIL requirement can discourage some of these requests. If people knew that a FOIL request is as simple as an email with the FOIL phrase included, they might not be discouraged. One solution, of course, is for the organizations to put the files on their websites. See question #1.

I will make all of these audits available online very soon. My efforts, though, should not be necessary.

UPDATE:
I had a follow-up call with SUNY. They pointed out three things:
1. I was the only person in at least the last three years to request copies of the financial audits.
2. SUNY is very proud of the extensive charter school reporting available on their website.
3. It is not SUNY policy to require FOIL requests for all information that is not available on their website. Rather, in this case, they thought a FOIL request was the best approach. (I corrected this in the original post.)

In my experience, SUNY’s online reporting is generally excellent. (Check out their impressive website.) In the case of the financial audits, I think their reporting is lacking but the situation is easy to remedy. I hope they address this in the future.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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