School board of trustees and the OIA

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Behind every school is a board of trustees who represent the communities they serve. Part of a board’s responsibility involves decisions on official information requests. 

This video gives an overview of the OIA as it relates to school boards of trustees. It also explains the Ombudsman’s role – whether that’s offering advice and guidance about the OIA to school boards or dealing with OIA complaints.

Schools are at the heart of every community.

Behind every school is a board of trustees representing the communities they serve.

Cathryn Curran-Tietjens is the Chair of Kahurangi School’s board of trustees in Wellington.

“On the Board we talk about - we make sure we’ve got the right policies in place; we check the children’s achievement and see how that’s tracking throughout the year.”

Principals need to be accountable to their boards, reporting on progress.

“The paperwork - it can be from communication with parents, appraisal. Each month, I get a principal report ready and they’ll cover various elements of school life.”

The Act is overseen by the Chief Ombudsman.

“Well, a school board of trustees might be small, but the whole two and a half thousand school boards of trustees in the state system are subject to the OIA, and they have responsibilities under that Act so they’re just as important.”

When requests comes in, schools need a process for dealing with them.

Straightforward information requests about day-to-day matters can often go to the Principal.

More complex issues may need to be referred to the board.

The board is responsible for decisions on information requests.

“The Official Information Act in itself is not a doddle and it is a difficult thing to grapple with. We’ve always taken the approach of seeking advice in order to figure out what needs to be redacted, what should be disclosed, because it’s a real responsibility.”

The definition of official information is a wide one.

It doesn’t just cover paper based information.

It covers anything held by the school, including student records, emails, photos, videos, text messages and social media.

It can also include board minutes, including minutes of ‘in committee’ board meetings. This is when the public have been excluded.

The general principle is that information should be made available unless there is a good reason to withhold it.

Decisions to withhold information can be challenged.

“So you, the board, have made a decision. Let’s say you’ve decided not to release. The requestor can complain to me about that decision. I look at the information. I decide whether or not you, the board, have - in my view - made the right call or the wrong call, and I either recommend that you do release it - and there’s a public duty to do so - or I say to the requestor the board was justified in not releasing it.”

Any requests for information must be considered as soon as reasonably practicable and a decision on the request should be made no later than 20 working days after receiving it (unless that time limit is extended).

Many boards only meet once a month.

Sometimes a meeting falls outside of the 20 working day period.

If it hasn’t already, your board should have a process to answer requests when the board is not getting together.

“The best way for a board to communicate and be seen to be transparent is to proactively release information. What do I mean by that? Just put it up before you’re asked. Put it up on a website, in newsletters, however you want to communicate. Say what it is that you’re up to, why you’re doing it, how you want to go about it. In that way, you’re unlikely to get quite so many requests.”

You are not on your own. There’s plenty of information and support available on the Official Information Act. The NZSTA has a number of resources.

“We would suggest they pick up the phone and give our advisory and support centre a call and we can point them in the right direction. We can help them unpick, perhaps, what’s in the request - if it’s asking for a whole lot of different things. We can also give them advice about how their board should approach it because, of course, the timeframes are very tight.”

The Ombudsman also offers guidance and advice.

“We don’t just deal with complaints. We also have a large part of the Office that’s there to give guidance, to give advice and instead of waiting for a complaint to become a full blooded investigation matter, we can take a question from a board and give a view on it. We’re not expressing what the outcome might be, but we’re giving a steer as to what the law is and what sort of approach is best to take.”

Visit the website’s of the Ombudsman and the NZSTA for more information.

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