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Rochester City School District keeping the lid on toilet repairs

A sample of some of the Rochester City School District's response to an open records request seeking work orders for restroom repairs as schools with each page showing heavy redactions with detail blacked out.
Staff photo
A sample of some of the Rochester City School District's response to an open records request seeking work orders for restroom repairs as schools.

What sort of repairs go into keeping the water flowing in Rochester City School District’s bathrooms?

If you ask the district, that’s on a strictly need to know basis.

District officials claim that the dozens of work orders pertaining to bathroom repairs – including those involving outside contractors – are interagency communication not subject to public disclosure. The state’s Committee on Open Government says that is wrong.

The question of how the district does its business arose after WXXI News got a tip in December that maintenance of toilets, sinks, and urinals in several city schools were plugged up by a sizable backlog of open orders. In some cases that allegedly left janitors to purge toilets using buckets.

WXXI News submitted a Freedom of Information Law request on Dec. 12, 2023, for all work orders involving RCSD bathrooms, including cost of repair, date of request, date of closure, details of the repair, and any open work orders.

The district’s response, sent Friday, spans 120 pages and shows RCSD piped $87,671.77 into restroom repair and maintenance between 2020 and the end of 2023. An additional $1 million was spent on bathrooms as part of the district’s capital improvement project during that same period, according to the provided documents.

But what those repairs and improvements entailed was sanitized, with the summary of each work order blacked out in the document. Requested information on open work orders also was omitted.

The district offered no explanation for the redactions in fulfilling the request and marked the request as “closed” upon sending.

When asked why the information was blotted out, records access officer Brendan O’Riordan replied that it was deemed to be “intra-agency communications.”

Requests for internal government communications can be denied for several reasons, under New York state law. Intra-agency communications are one such exception. For example, a request for written opinions from an official that are part of a deliberative process can be denied. But requests for records cannot be shot down if they are factual tabulations or instructions to staff that affect the public.

Kristin O’Neill, assistant director of the state Committee on Open Government, said there is no feasible justification for flushing the request for bathroom repair work orders.

“I find it hard to believe that work orders that reflect what work was actually completed, that’s factual information, could be withheld,” O’Neill said. “I don’t see how the intra-agency applies in this circumstance, unless the people filling out the paperwork was being creative and saying, ‘These darn kids, the toilets keep getting stopped up.’”

Even if those opinions had appeared in the work orders, that would have needed to be true on all completed work orders logged by the district to justify the redactions.

Even if the intra-agency clause applied to the internal work orders, not all of them were done through district workers, but contractors. For example, AP Plumbing provided repairs in several cases.

Ange Palmerini, president of the Board of Education Non-teaching Employees, the union which represents school support staff and custodians, said he has heard complaints of long wait times in restroom repairs, but could offer no further information.

Isaiah Santiago, the Board of Education commissioner who leads the Community and Intergovernmental Relations Committee, referred questions to the administration’s spokesperson, Marisol Ramos-Lopez.

WXXI News has appealed the district’s response to the open records request. Ramos-Lopez did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Gino Fanelli is an investigative reporter who also covers City Hall. He joined the staff in 2019 by way of the Rochester Business Journal, and formerly served as a watchdog reporter for Gannett in Maryland and a stringer for the Associated Press.