The requirement that most emails at the Los Angeles Unified School District be destroyed after one year may not be legal under California public records law. But even if it is, it's a terrible policy. The emails that are now under so much scrutiny — electronic discussions, in effect, between Supt. John Deasy, his then-deputy and the company that hoped to sell half a billion dollars worth of iPads to the district — might never have come to light if the district had implemented this rule earlier.
The school board approved a contract Tuesday for an email management system that will, among other things, destroy most district emails after a year. It also will help the district manage its email by, for example, allowing searches that easily pull up all messages related to a certain topic. The timing of the approval looked suspicious, coming right after the revelation of the emails between top district officials and those at Apple and Pearson about purchasing iPads and related curriculum for students. But in fact the decision to destroy older email was announced in a district bulletin in July 2012.
It now seems that the policy might be out of compliance with California law. The regulations define three categories of non-student records, and even in the category that allows the shortest period of time before destruction — so-called disposable records — the requirement is that they be retained for at least three years.
Getting rid of records earlier might save L.A. Unified some money, but it is more important for the district to hold on to documents whose significance might not become obvious for a while, or that might remain hidden from public view until someone begins looking for them. The email traffic involving Deasy, his former deputy superintendent, Jaime Aquino, and representatives of Apple and Pearson might have been deleted automatically if they had fallen within the timeline of the new policy.
The district's email rule might not be intended to hide district shenanigans, but it certainly could prove a useful tool for doing so. That would be too bad; the district's dealings require a commitment to the highest levels of transparency. Furthermore, future investigations of the controversial iPad program might entail examining additional documents from the period. It's important that none of them be destroyed.
Despite the approval of the contract, it will take months for any emails to be deleted, district officials said. Good. There's time for the school board to change the policy with no harm done.