How much should public records cost?

MoneyAs far as parents and local officials are concerned, the school district of Radford, Virginia has some explaining to do in order to justify their sky-high public records request fulfillment prices. It hasn’t been uncommon for requests to the district, with specific regards to recordings of their school board meeting recordings, to be met with bills that total in the hundreds of dollars.

Members of the state’s Freedom of Information Advisory Council have made public statements asserting their concern over the pricing as well, with one representative wondering how one local man’s request for recordings of the school’s board meetings was billed at $830.

According to the school district, the costs largely come from the conversion of the recordings from one audio format to another. For this task, they explained that the majority of the charges are to offset the hourly wage of the district’s technology engineer: $33.55. The only problem, however, is that converting audio formats is usually a process which, while possibly requiring knowledge of computer applications and storage requirements, does not require much time at all; once the process has started, it can be left alone until finished. One parent has likened the debacle to charging someone $33.55 per hour for the equivalent of having someone babysit a copying machine while it prints.

As further embarrassment for the district, their “format conversion” defense was, at least to an extent, debunked when a local woman wanted the recording from a school board meeting where her 10th grade daughter had spoken. She was quoted the same $33.55 rate, for two hours of work, but there was just one problem: The recordings from that night had already been requested, and by extension converted to the output format, before. This raised concerns as to the legitimacy of the quoted costs.

At the root of the problem, however, is the whole business of “conversion.” Many people are perplexed as to why conversion is needed and an original format suitable for output can’t be used. After all, modern technology makes it extremely easy to record several hours of mp3 audio on even mobile devices with small internal memories.

When the public finally got some answers, one of the silliest was that the recordings were indeed made using an iPad, but via an app which does not use mp3 format. Robert Graham, the assistant superintendent for the district, said the files were then re-encoded to mp3 at a later date. It is worth noting that iOS devices feature a native recording app, which already records in mp3 by default.

In any event, public pressure has caused some bend among the district’s higher ups. It was stated recently that future recordings would cost much less for parents and other local parties to acquire, though it was not specified exactly what this new price point would be nor what the new method was that would reduce costs so quickly. Despite the methods used, this one can likely be chalked up as a win for the parents of the district, at least in some capacity.