[Editor’s note: this article was originally published in the OC Register on December 10, 2019. It is demonstrative of the lack of transparency that is characteristic of the Anaheim Union High School District.]

California Policy Center’s Bittersweet Legal Victory Over Anaheim School District

by Will Swaim

In 2017, the California Policy Center made what should have been a routine request for documents from Anaheim Union High School District.

We were trying to understand how officials had decided that their best bet for managing the exodus of families from the district’s troubled schools was to block the exits. What we didn’t expect was that the district would also simply try to block the release of public documents about that policy.

The district stonewalled.

The district obfuscated, delayed, and denied ­– forcing CPC to sue for access under the state’s Public Records Act. In one instance, the district complained that it couldn’t comply because of the burdensome cost of copying the records. But there were no copying costs: we had asked for electronic files.

Two years later, including a trip to the Court of Appeals, we won the case.

The Superior Court in Orange County recently ruled that the district must turn over to us documents it unlawfully withheld. What was the district trying to hide? We discovered that district officials were concerned not about student achievement or the families they ostensibly serve. They saw – still see – these students primarily as sources of state and federal revenue.

That was evident in one of the documents CPC finally received, an email between an Anaheim Union High School District and an Anaheim Elementary School District official advocating the denial of a student’s transfer request.

“As we’ve shared with you, we are denying most transfer requests,” Jaron Fried, an assistant superintendent in the Anaheim Union High School District, wrote in a February 2017 email. “We requested that you also tighten up on letting students transfer out of your district (this will help with your declining enrollment as well).”

This email confirms lingering suspicions.

In June 2017, the OC Register reported, “Anaheim Union High School District, facing decreasing enrollment, is tightening its grip on students hoping to leave for other districts, denying more than 450 such requests this year.”

Anaheim’s enrollment has been declining for years, and each student represents about $10,000 in government funds. Rather than consider the best interests of the students requesting transfers, the district considered only its own narrow financial priorities.

California law allows transfers for transportation or childcare reasons or for specialized academic opportunities available elsewhere. But schools do not allow transfers because the districts are failing. According to California test scores, more than 50 percent of Anaheim Union students don’t meet English language arts standards, and 70 percent don’t meet math standards. Thousands of students languish on waitlists for Orange County’s public charter schools. No wonder the district is pursuing an East Berlin strategy for maintaining its population.

Federal and state judiciaries have repeatedly held that government records must be public to ensure accountability and transparency. California’s Public Records Act declares that “secrecy is antithetical to the democratic system.” It holds that “access to information concerning the conduct of the people’s business is a fundamental and necessary right of every person in this state.”

This legal victory is bittersweet. While the judiciary upheld the fundamental right of government transparency, it’s disappointing that it took an organization with CPC’s resources to acquire the documents through litigation. We have access to attorneys (Craig Alexander and Chad Morgan, experts in California’s Public Records Act, handled the case), and we work full time on government transparency issues. What chance do ordinary citizens, consumed with work and family, have in exercising their right to public records if districts simply disobey transparency laws unless a court forces their hand? Limiting access only to those who can fight legal battles isn’t justice.

CPC has repeatedly used public records requests to reveal inflated public employee compensation, union membership rates, and school district misdeeds, all of which help us analyze the fiscal and education threats facing the state.

It’s just a shame that the public’s right to government documents seems to extend only to groups like ours that can afford to exercise it.

Will Swaim is president of California Policy Center and cohost of National Review’s Radio Free California Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @willswaim.