Judge orders New Mexico public school district to pay news outlets for violating state public records act

April 19, 2021

On April 19, 2021, a Bernalillo County judge ruled that Albuquerque Public Schools violated New Mexico’s Inspection of Public Records Act when handling requests for documents made by two media outlets. The judge ordered the school district to pay the news organizations more than $400,000.

The Albuquerque Journal and local NBC-affiliate KOB 4 had jointly sued the school district, alleging that it failed to meet deadlines in turning over public documents that the news outlets had requested in 2014. The documents related to the abrupt departure of former schools Superintendent Winston Brooks, the Journal reported.

Then-school board president Analee Maestas said at the time of Brooks’ departure that “a serious item of concern to Board members was raised and discussed,” according to the Journal. An outside attorney hired to investigate the issue produced a report for the school board; the news outlets had requested copies of the report, along with other documents and communications related to Brooks’ record as superintendent, his sudden departure two years before the end of his contract with the district and the $350,000 he was paid to buy out his contract.

Judge Nancy Franchini had earlier denied the request for the attorney’s report, saying it was exempt from disclosure because it contained personnel information, according to the Journal. But in her April ruling the judge found that the school district’s actions were “unreasonable,” KOB 4 reported, when it failed to produce other records requested and missed deadlines set out in the state’s public records act on 13 separate instances. Among documents the judge said should be released to the news organizations was a spreadsheet documenting complaints against Brooks, according to the Journal.

Franchini ordered the school district to pay KOB 4 $118,000 and the Journal $293,625, as well as their court costs and reasonable attorney fees, the news outlets reported. According to KOB 4, she also ordered the school district to release the requested records within 20 days.

The Journal reported that the school district has announced plans to appeal the ruling.

APS works diligently to be transparent in responding to all records requests, and this matter was no different,” school district spokesperson Monica Armenta said. “In this same case, the Court previously sided with APS and found that the District correctly withheld the investigatory report regarding former Superintendent Winston Brooks.”

Both news organizations said they intend to appeal Franchini’s earlier ruling that the attorney’s report on Brooks is exempt from disclosure. But they praised the decision ordering the school district to pay fees for failure to comply with open records rules. In a statement, Journal Editor Karen Moses said the ruling sent a clear message on the importance of adherence to the public records act.

“Noncompliance of the state’s open records law has been a longstanding issue with APS,” Moses said. “And when public bodies fail to follow the requirements for timely production of public records, the community is deprived of information that it is entitled to.”

Michelle Donaldson, the vice president and general manager of KOB 4, also stressed the importance of public records laws in a statement to the outlet.

“A school district cannot pick and choose when to obey the law, especially when it’s writing six-figure checks to outgoing personnel,” Donaldson said. “People cannot have faith in the system when the laws are ignored.”

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected]

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