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Tweed Courthouse, Department of Education headquarters

Tweed Courthouse, Department of Education headquarters

New York City education department to improve response to public record requests

After sustaining criticism for its sluggish responses to public records requests, New York City’s education department says it will provide more realistic timelines for responding to requests.

In new guidelines released Wednesday, the education department said it will stop regularly pushing back its own deadlines and will provide more accurate estimates for when, exactly, it will respond to records requests.

The new policy is meant to provide “a clear and realistic estimate” within 20 days of acknowledging a request of how long it will take to respond, officials said, including an explanation for whatever timeline the department provides. That is meant to end the widely-criticized practice of sending form letters every 30 days — sometimes for dozens of months — postponing an official response.

A Chalkbeat analysis found that the education department is less responsive than over a dozen other city agencies, taking over 100 days on average to respond to public records requests. That’s slower than the Mayor’s Office, the Department of Environmental Protection, the Administration for Children’s Services, and far slower than the police department.

City officials said the new policy would result in clearer communication, informing those who request documents more quickly if their inquiry is unclear or too broad while giving them a chance to tweak the request.

The changes won’t go into effect immediately and will be voted on at the November meeting of the city’s Panel for Educational Policy.

It’s unclear whether the new policy would improve response times, or simply offer clearer estimates for when the city will respond. Officials said the volume of FOIL requests has increased by about 35 percent since 2013. In response, the department has expanded the number of staff that help respond to requests from four to seven people since 2014.

“As part of our ongoing work, these proposed changes to our FOIL regulation are intended to improve communication with individuals who submit requests and provide them realistic response timelines,” Howard Friedman, the education department’s general counsel, said in a statement.

“The DOE will continue to address FOIL requests in accordance with State law and remains committed to increasing transparency and more efficiently serving the public.”