Congress Elementary School District v. Warren

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Congress Elementary School District v. Warren
Court Arizona Court of Appeals
Decided March 31, 2011 (2011-03-31)
Case history
Prior action(s) Dismissed; subsequently appealed
Appealed from Yavapai County Superior Court
Case opinions
Thrown out; Decision sided with Goldwater that the Congress School District was previously in violation of state laws mandating government transparency.

Congress School District v. Warren In January 2010, the Congress, Arizona school district filed a lawsuit against Jean Warren, Barbara Rejon, Cindy Regis and Jennifer Renee Hoge. The district claims illegal harassment by the various requests for public records. The Congress Elementary School District has a history of alleged violations of the Arizona public records law and other state and federal laws that guarantee parents the right to see school records about their children. The lawsuit also seeks to prevent the four women from requesting investigations by state agencies even if they suspect state sunshine laws have been violated.

Background

At different times, Jean Warren, Barbara Rejon, Cyndi Regis and Renee Behl-Hoge, parents who currently or formerly had children in the Congress Elementary School district, requested to see various documents considered to be basic public records, including agendas and minutes of school board meetings. Rejon, Regis and Behl-Hoge also asked to see records about their children when they attended school in the district. However, Behl-Hoge’s family no longer lived in Congress and she had not requested to see any school district records in more than six years.

The defendants' requests for public records with the school district date back to 2002 when Warren requested public records four different times while her grandson was attending the Congress elementary school.[1] According to the Attorney General’s office, the district was not properly posting governing board agendas or making minutes available to the public under the state’s open meeting law. In 2007, the school imposed a dress code citing a survey conducted which showed overwhelming parental support (35 parents out of 75 families). Rejon objected to the dress code, and requested to see the results of the survey. The school refused to release them. Regis, who also objected to the school dress code, was not allowed to speak at a school board meeting on the issue. Although the Attorney General’s office stated that the school district did not break state law, the school was admonished yet again for not releasing public records. Since 2007, the school district’s response to releasing public records did not improve, according to the defendants.

Lawsuit

In an effort to prevent the four defendants from filing any additional requests without first getting permission from a judge, or from filing future lawsuits, the Congress Elementary School District filed suit on January 28, 2010. The Goldwater Institute, a think tank based in Phoenix, AZ, represented the four defendants free of charge.[2]

The school district claimed that it had, time and time again, complied with the requests made by Warren and others. The school district also said that it has been harassed so often by Warren that it was not able to functionally educate its students. Toni Wayas, the school district’s superintendent, contends, "We are trying. Honestly. But to have public requests so unreasonable that a tiny district with 112 kids must hire a full-time clerk to process them is not reasonable," she said. "I wish I could identify what it is they want."[2]

The Goldwater Institute argued that the school district had been in violation of state laws mandating government transparency in the past. Investigations in 2002 and 2007 by the state Ombudsman and Attorney General uncovered violations of the state’s open meeting law by the Attorney General’s Office.[1] According to Carrie Ann Sitren of the Goldwater Institute, this was "a clear attempt to silence people in the community who have been critical of the board’s actions, and have made good-faith attempts to ensure the district is spending taxpayer money wisely."[2] None of the records that Warren requested were private or confidential, and thus, should have been readily available to be released to the public, according to the assistant state Ombudsman.[3]

Attempts to Preclude Access Continue

In April 2010, the Yavapai Superior Court dismissed the Congress Elementary School District’s attempts to enjoin four women from seeking public records before the request is screened by the court. However, the court will consider the District’s request for declaratory relief regarding Jean Warren’s pending January 13, 2010 public records request for the District's stewardship list and other public records. After the superior court denied the District's motion to stay the claim for declaratory relief until after the appeal, defendant Jean Warren filed a motion for summary judgment to require the District to release the records. In addition, the District appealed the trial court dismissal and the parties recently completed briefing the issues for the Arizona Court of Appeals Division 1. [4][5]

Appeals court to hear oral arguments in school district public records case

On February 22, 2010, the Goldwater Institute will present oral arguments before the Arizona Court of Appeals on Congress School District v. Warren. The Institute is defending a group of parents and taxpayers sued by the school district for requesting public records. Last spring a Yavapai County Superior Court judge sided with the defendants, but the Congress School District appealed the case.

Decision of the Court

The Goldwater Institute filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit in the Yavapai County Superior Court on April 5, 2010. On April 15, 2010, Judge David L. Mackey sided with the Goldwater Institute’s position and threw the case out; the Congress School District appealed.

On March 31, 2011, The Arizona Court of Appeals filed an Opinion on the court case. They concurred with Judge Mackey's April 15, 2010, decision and sent the case back to his court to assess court and attorney fees for the Goldwater Institute who successfully defended the four women.

Case timeline

  • January 28, 2010: Congress Elementary School District files complaint in Yavapai County Superior Court
  • April 5, 2010: Hearing on Motion to Dismiss. 1:30 p.m. in Courtroom 304 at Yavapai County Courthouse, 120 S. Cortez Street, Prescott, Arizona.
  • April 15, 2010: Judge rules to grant motion to dismiss.
  • May 11, 2010: Congress School District files an appeal.
  • February 22, 2011: Hearing for Oral Argument for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief 2:45 am Court of Appeals Division One Department B; COURTROOM 1 Oral arguments were heard. No opinion issued as of 3/4/2011
  • February 28, 2011: Hearing presenting evidence ordered 9 am to 12:10 p.m. in Judge Mackey's Courtroom at Yavapai County Courthouse, 120 S. Cortez Street, Prescott, Arizona. Plaintiff: Superintendent Toni Wayas and Defendant: Jean Warren were questioned under oath regarding Stewardship List. Superintendent Wayas gave testimony as to what is a "working file". Judge Mackey ordered a viewing of those documents for Monday Mar 7th, 2011 at the district office. Ms. Warren will view the records on site.
  • March 31, 2011 The Arizona Court of Appeals - Affirmed and Remanded. "Preemptive action is inappropriate" Judge Sheldon said. The legal fight is more than a procedural loss for the district. The appellate court ordered it to pay the legal fees accumulated by the Goldwater Institute which represented the individuals who were sued.

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 Flatten, Mark."Congress, Ariz. school district sues taxpayers to stop questions", Goldwater Institute Watchdog Report, March 10, 2010.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Arrillaga, Paulina."Tiny school district sues citizens who seek info", The Arizona Republic, March 18, 2010.
  3. Paula Rhoden. "Congress School District sues to stop public records requests", The Daily Courier, March 11, 2010.
  4. The Public Record. Volume 3 (Issue 3).  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  5. "Making government more responsive to the people of Arizona". Arizona Ombudsman – Citizens’ Aide.  Website: www.azoca.gov

External links

  • 1.0 1.1 Goldwater Institute