Million-Dollar Records Request: From COVID and Critical Race Theory to Teachers’ Names & Schools, Minnesota Districts Flooded With Freedom of Information Document Demands

By Beth Hawkins | February 16, 2022


鈥淎nything with 鈥榓 sociological or cultural theme.鈥欌

Lately, the phone at the Minnesota School Boards Association has been ringing off the hook with dozens of calls from anxious leaders of small school districts 鈥 sometimes very small 鈥 facing a common quandary. 

They have been inundated with public records requests seeking millions of documents with information on everything from their schools鈥 COVID protocols to classroom materials, names of teachers and the buildings where they work, even text messages that mention race or social-emotional services.

Sometimes the requests come from law firms. Often they come from local residents who have protested mask and vaccine requirements at school board meetings. Clearly boilerplates, some letters go to multiple districts at once. 

The school officials making the phones ring are anxious about a range of things. There鈥檚 the cost and labor required to fulfill the requests, which districts report have skyrocketed in the last six months. There are demands that information be produced on tight timelines 鈥 sometimes bolstered by legal citations that don鈥檛 apply in Minnesota. And particularly when the person asking for information has been a loud fixture at board meeting protests, there are fears about being singled out for retaliation. 

It鈥檚 a variation of a scenario playing out across the country, as local groups 鈥 often loose organizations of people initially angered by schools鈥 responses to COVID-19 鈥 coalesce around how topics related to race, history, the LGBT community and antisemitism are taught. Some are getting help from national organizations and law firms.

In Owatonna, about an hour south of the Twin Cities, attorneys representing a local organization requested correspondence and documents in August that officials estimated would encompass 2 million pages. The district鈥檚 human resources director has been chipping away at it, in addition to her regular duties and the additional strains of keeping schools staffed during a pandemic.

In nearby Rochester, school leaders warned that it would cost an estimated $900,000 to fulfill a 41-page request from the local group Equality in Education for materials mentioning a broad range of subjects including critical race theory, equity and anything with 鈥渁 sociological or cultural theme.鈥 

The Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan school system received a request that it initially estimated would take two years to fulfill. The requesting attorney, whose Twin Cities law firm takes on far-right legal battles, trimmed the list of keywords he wanted searched, and the district hired two people to review the resulting documents for private data that would need redacting. District leaders now anticipate delivering the records by the end of the calendar year.  

Laws vary from state to state as to what reimbursement schools can collect for answering public records requests, but under Minnesota鈥檚 Data Practices Act, districts must cover some potentially significant expenses. This year, the school boards association, among others, is to either find funds to pay for fulfilling the requests or allow districts to recover all costs from requesters. 

This, in turn, has prompted freedom of information advocates to ask the Legislature not to change the law or to make accessing public data more expensive. They have on their side a recent Minnesota Supreme Court ruling that government agencies must fulfill even public records requests they find 鈥渂urdensome.鈥

There鈥檚 nothing new about people frustrated with notoriously opaque school districts. Or about government officials grousing about the obligation to comply with the law 鈥 particularly when they find themselves in the hot seat. But freedom of information is never more important than when trust between the public and public institutions is low.

Watching nervously as the debate rages, Minnesota鈥檚 government transparency advocates worry: Will freedom of information survive? 


鈥淧olitically motivated, overreaching demands that are designed to bury districts.鈥

When reporters ask for records under a state or federal freedom of information law, they often work to phrase their request in a way that it is comprehensive enough to compel public officials to produce everything relevant, and yet specific enough that it can be fulfilled in a reasonable amount of time. Requests rarely run more than one or two pages. 

On Sept. 20, 2021, the interim superintendent of Rochester Public Schools received a records request that is 41 pages long and asks for 20 months worth of documents. Prepared by a Minneapolis law firm on behalf of Equality in Education, it set a deadline of Dec. 15. One reason the request is so long is that it seeks information for almost all of the district鈥檚 two dozen schools 鈥 to identify classrooms and other specific places where the topics in question are under discussion 鈥 as well as for individual officials and board members.


In addition to an exhaustive list of search terms such as 鈥渆quity, social justice, cultural competency, race, intersectionality” or critical race theory, it asks for curriculum covering history, social studies, geography, English, English literature, U.S. history and world history, and 鈥渁ny courses with a sociological or cultural theme [and] any courses with a curriculum that includes a discussion of current events.鈥

The request also seeks a list of vendors that have produced materials on the aforementioned topics for district schools, groups that have rented school facilities, student groups that use related resources and materials, and communications with the state鈥檚 teacher union, Education Minnesota, and other unions. 

Requests for keyword searches of staff emails are common, says interim Superintendent Kent Pekel. But Equality in Education is seeking communications from every principal in the district, among other employees.

鈥淵ou can imagine some principal is just sending email to someone on their staff about an equity training they did or a workshop they attended,鈥 he says. 鈥淭his sent a very cold chill through our buildings.鈥        

Equality in Education does not appear to have an internet presence, and the request did not name any individual associated with the group. The Minneapolis law firm that sent the letter outlining the records sought is Mohrman, Kaardal & Erickson, which did not respond to email from 成人抖阴 asking if a representative of Equality in Education or the group鈥檚 lawyer would comment for this story.

In November, the district responded to the group鈥檚 attorney, saying the estimated cost of fulfilling the request was $901,121, which by law it could ask to be paid before starting the work. 

The cost is so high because principals, teachers and other staff would have to comb through emails, textbooks, professional development materials and other documents throughout the entire district and decide whether they contain the aforementioned sociological or cultural themes, says Pekel. Because of this, fulfilling the request would take more than 13,000 hours.  

In an effort to make information accessible to the general public, limits the costs government agencies can pass along to people lodging data requests. Anyone may ask to inspect an existing document in person for free and must be allowed to take a photo of it. If someone wants copies, electronic or paper, the agency may charge for the time spent compiling information, as well as making the copies. Districts cannot seek reimbursement for the cost of vetting and redacting records for information that might violate student or employee privacy laws. 

In response to people who say this sounds like an immense expense, freedom of information advocates point out that taxpayers have already paid to collect the information and that with the state鈥檚 law nearly a half-century old, most public entities long ago built the cost of compliance into their budgets.  

The executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, Scott Croonquist, says he is unaware of anyone tracking which school systems have budgeted for the costs of complying with public records requests. 鈥淚鈥檓 just guessing that given what鈥檚 been happening lately, that districts are going to be looking harder at putting more money into a line item to be prepared,鈥 he says.  

While Minnesota 鈥 at least in the law 鈥 errs on the side of public access, it does not set a timeline for agencies to fulfill requests, saying only it must be 鈥渞easonable.鈥 Disputes can be taken, free of charge, to the state Department of Administration. Requesters may also sue. If they win, they are entitled to recoup the cost of going to court. 

What鈥檚 “reasonable,” of course, is the subject of endless debate. In 2018, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that government offices can鈥檛 reject requests for being 鈥渂urdensome.鈥 They can and frequently do suggest ways for narrowing a search or reframing it to be quicker and easier to fulfill, but the person asking for the data doesn鈥檛 have to agree. 

The first request received by Owatonna Public Schools in August included 26 search terms and any records involving complaints about equity initiatives and teacher training, and asked for the documents to be delivered in 35 days. 

After some back and forth with the district, United Patriots for Accountability and its Twin Cities law firm, the 鈥 which has as one mission the 鈥渇ight against Critical Race Theory indoctrination鈥 as well as 鈥淐RT鈥檚 twin: forced teaching and training on and acceptance of anti-Christian non-binary-gender ideology鈥 鈥 removed seven keywords.

Because the records would have to be screened for privacy concerns, the district鈥檚 human resources director, Chris Picha, took on the task. It took her six weeks to compile and redact documents in response to the just first four keywords, at a cost of $14,000 in labor alone. 

The request to the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan school system also came from the Upper Midwest Law Center. District officials say they gave an estimate of how long it would take to fulfill the firm鈥檚 request, as freedom of information advocates and state officials advise 鈥 in this case, two years. The lawyers pared back the data they were asking for and agreed to receive the results in chunks. 

鈥淲e鈥檙e asking for reasonable parameters,鈥 says district communications director Tony Taschner. 鈥淏ut somebody halfway across the country can lodge a request and we have to spend local levy money on it.鈥 

In November, the editorial boards of two southern Minnesota newspapers fired shots across the local requesters鈥 bows. In late November, the Mankato Free Press lodged in Owatonna and Rochester were 鈥減olitically motivated, overreaching demands that are designed to bury districts.鈥 The Rochester paper followed with extolling the importance of the public records law, underscoring that parents 鈥渁bsolutely have the right to know鈥 if critical race theory is being taught, but suggesting that information could be obtained with a much narrower request. 

鈥淚f Equality in Education has other motives,鈥 the editors wrote, 鈥渨ell, we wish them good luck as they peruse the tens of thousands of pages of documents in their search for a third-grade teacher鈥檚 text message that uses the words 鈥榬ace鈥 and 鈥榗ritical鈥 in the same sentence.鈥 

In a response to the Mankato paper鈥檚 editorial, James V.F. Dickey, senior trial counsel for the Upper Midwest Law Center, defended the scope of United Patriots for Accountability鈥檚 appeal for documents. 鈥淚f Owatonna were truly not teaching [critical race theory], and if there was no real concern that teachers within the district are doing so, the data request would have yielded few, if any, results,鈥 he wrote, adding that it was inappropriate to 鈥渓ump in鈥 his request with the one filed in Rochester.

In an email to 成人抖阴, Dickey added that his clients visit district offices at agreed-upon times during the school day to review documents as they become available, for free.


鈥淚f we look at this solely as a public records issue, we鈥檙e not going to fix it.鈥

One of the people answering the phone at the is Executive Director Kirk Schneidawind. Because many of the boards his organization represents are too small to have staff dedicated to fulfilling public records requests, the association has long been a go-to source for advice. 

To judge from the calls pouring in to the association, every district in the state recently got identical letters from a Texas law firm seeking extensive personnel information. Other requests district leaders have asked for advice about say the recipient has 10 days to provide the data and cite a non-Minnesota statute as justification for the deadline. Schneidawind and his colleagues have tried to provide clarity about districts鈥 actual obligations. 

Minnesota’s law has provisions intended to protect government agencies from becoming swamped with frivolous requests, says Don Gemberling, spokesperson for the . This includes allowing agencies to ask for costs up front, as Rochester has done. The state has also advised agencies on how to stop responding to people who repeatedly ask for records but don鈥檛 retrieve documents prepared for them.   

Rochester Public School Board (rochesterschools.org)

The process of complying with freedom of information requests has changed over the last couple of decades, says Gemberling, who used to be the Department of Administration official responsible for helping agencies interpret the law, in part because the increase in digital records has enabled people to ask for keyword searches. This can turn up a very large number of relevant documents 鈥 but the data is still public.

鈥淚f someone comes in and wants to see all of your curriculum matter on the Roman Empire, that鈥檚 public information,鈥 says Gemberling, who has also issued opinions about some of the extremes to which the process can be pushed. 鈥淚f someone comes in with a large request, you can say, 鈥榃e will do our best, and that may take us weeks or months.鈥欌

A member of the Minnesota Council on Government Information鈥檚 board, Matt Ehling says there鈥檚 nothing new about high-profile events provoking large public records requests. 鈥淭his happens whenever there鈥檚 a controversial incident,鈥 he says. 鈥淭he Data Practices Act has survived all this time because it has that 鈥榬easonable time鈥 provision.鈥 

Gemberling says that in his experience, school districts are prone to giving the public unclear answers about controversial topics. That people get frustrated and seek alternate means of finding information should surprise no one, he says.

Still, the school board association, along with the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, this year plans to ask state lawmakers to 鈥渁llow school boards to recover all reasonable costs of fulfilling public data requests.鈥 No bill has yet been filed, and neither group has yet said whether it wants the cost to be borne by the state or the people requesting the records.

鈥淲e鈥檙e hopeful there will be some way to charge back for those costs,鈥 says Schneidawind. 鈥淥r any type of relief on excessive requests. Maybe paying for the staffing this will require.鈥

On the other side is, among others, the , led by journalists and librarians. 鈥淲hen government entities have sought to impose new limits on public requesters, we have always stressed the flexibility of existing law, and worked to enhance knowledge about the options available to government entities,鈥 the council wrote in a letter to lawmakers. Noting that complaints about the law from public agencies are nothing new, the council continued, 鈥淭his is something we continue to highlight at the current time, particularly as the Minnesota School Board Association has included calls for 鈥榬ecovering costs鈥 associated with data requests in its 2022 legislative agenda.鈥

Shifting the cost of compliance onto the people asking for records would constrict access to public information, the letter says: 鈥淧articularly in times of public controversy 鈥 such as those we currently find ourselves in 鈥 public knowledge about government operations is paramount.鈥

A law professor at Ohio State University, Margaret Kwoka recently published a book on freedom of information laws. Historically, use of such laws for abuse and harassment has been rare, she says, and most public agencies build the cost of complying into their budgets.

鈥淚鈥檓 always skeptical of having more ways we can deny requesters,鈥 she says, noting that increasing fees will pose a serious challenge for local news outlets, which already often struggle to get their requests fulfilled.  

Besides, she says, the debate skirts the heart of the matter. 鈥淥ne way of looking at this is it鈥檚 not really about public records, it鈥檚 really about academic freedom,鈥 says Kwoka. 鈥淚f we look at this solely as a public records issue, we鈥檙e not going to fix it.鈥


鈥淣ot hearing what I have to say鈥ill be extremely detrimental to your position.”

Located in far southeastern Minnesota, Lewiston-Altura Public Schools has 625 students. Like most small-town school administrators, its superintendent, Gwen Carman, counts fielding public records inquiries among her many duties.

In November, she started getting unusual requests. There was one for data on COVID-19 tests administered and their results, and another asking whether there was a hazardous materials protocol for disposing of face masks. Several sought information about school board members’ pay, their attendance at board meetings and liability insurance the district carried for them.  

Then came a request for the first, middle and last names of every person who works for the district, as well as email addresses, job titles, date of hires and the buildings where they work. The biggest request demanded anything turned up by a keyword search of Carman鈥檚 and board members鈥 emails regarding critical race theory, social-emotional learning or 鈥 curiously 鈥 how Lewiston-Altura proposes to comply with a school improvement law.

鈥淚 haven鈥檛 gotten the invoices yet, but the legal fees are going to be high,鈥 says Carman. 鈥淲e鈥檙e spending hours on this.鈥

While residents seeking public records in communities like Lewiston may not be formally organized, there are national organizations coaching people on filing their requests. One such group is Parents Defending Education, a national nonprofit that sprung up last spring to counter what it sees as indoctrination in schools. According to its website, it investigates efforts 鈥渢o impose toxic new curriculums and to force our kids into divisive identity groups based on race, ethnicity, religion and gender.鈥 

鈥淲e have extensive experience , so contact us with tips and ideas that you鈥檝e got for documents we should try to get,鈥 the website states. 鈥淎nd if you file your own and think you鈥檝e found something great, let us know 鈥 we can put it on our IndoctriNation Map and help to publicize your results!鈥 The site offers a database of state laws.

There is also a searchable list of consultants and groups that work with school systems to provide training and other services relating to diversity and inclusion, LGBT students and anti-racism, among other topics. Visitors can download relevant contracts and other public documents.   

The group’s IndoctriNation Map displays incidents 鈥 links, documents or synopses of school district controversies 鈥 and parent organizations, which it notes are not necessarily affiliated. Some of the places where school systems are being asked for large numbers of records appear on its Minnesota map.

Parents Defending Education did not reply to 成人抖阴鈥檚 request for comment. 

Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan, for instance, made the map for a teacher reading her fourth-graders 鈥淪omething Happened in Our Town,鈥 a story about how two families of different races process the killing of a Black man by police, in the wake of George Floyd鈥檚 killing. Qorsho Hassan, Minnesota鈥檚 first Somali teacher of the year, was the subject of protests and social media campaigns.

Parents Defending Education is not the only national organization helping people use freedom of information laws to investigate school districts. The year-old advocacy organization Moms for Liberty, which has two Minnesota chapters, who are concerned about issues ranging from mask mandates to books in school libraries on how to use public records laws to hold local government accountable. Its members have filed complaints over books about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Ruby Bridges, and have demanded Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to pass unspecified laws to protect children and parents. 

Under Minnesota law, a requester鈥檚 motives don鈥檛 matter, but to Carman, a picture was coming into focus. After she fulfilled the written request for information on board members鈥 liability insurance, for instance, a group of protesters showed up at a meeting and handed every member an envelope containing a demand for $250,000 in recompense 鈥 for what, it was not clear. 

But in a few instances, she got a second round of requests that were identical to the first, except this time they came from a man named Keith Haskell, who identifies himself as an investigator with the National Action Task Force. According to its website, the group is a 鈥渄ecentralized private membership network of concerned Americans [who] have decided that ‘enough is enough’!鈥  

Haskell did not reply to a request for comment for this story.

He has appeared before other school boards to argue against mask mandates, insisting in at least one other community that board members鈥 approval of the requirements 鈥減unctures鈥 their legal immunity as elected officials, opening them up to demands such as the ones delivered in Lewiston-Altura. 

The group’s website lists a Washington, D.C., address that corresponds to a company that offers its 鈥渧irtual office address鈥 for 鈥渦se on business cards, website, etc.鈥 

As first reported by the Minnesota politics blog , Haskell was convicted in 2017 of impersonating a police officer after two teens he suspected of shoplifting. 

He raised the topic of school board member liability during remarks he made at a board meeting in Brainerd, a northern resort community. When he refused to stop speaking after the three minutes allotted during the public comment period, the board paused its proceedings. 

鈥淚 assure you that not hearing what I have to say tonight and taking it very seriously will be extremely detrimental to your position on this board, to your entire board and you as an individual,鈥 the as saying. 

Haskell also insisted that board members had 鈥減ierced the veil of protection鈥 they had as elected officials and were no longer covered by the district鈥檚 insurance policies. 

鈥淥bviously, that鈥檚 threatening to board members,鈥 says Carman. 鈥淚t鈥檚 bullying.鈥

The law is very clear about the narrow circumstances in which an individual can sue, and Lewiston-Altura鈥檚 board members are not at risk, she says. But the strife is taking its toll.

鈥淥ur board members understand this is absolutely not the time, they cannot quit, even though this is incredibly stressful,鈥 Carman adds. 鈥淲hat鈥檚 frustrating is none of this has anything to do with educating kids.鈥

Correction: The response to the Mankato paper鈥檚 editorial was in regard to a request for documents by United Patriots for Accountability.

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