Michigan court says teacher evaluations are public record

MICHIGAN — The Michigan Court of Appeals upheld in June a circuit court ruling that evaluations of a public school teacher had to be disclosed to the Ann Arbor News.

The Ann Arbor News originally filed its Freedom of Information suit in 1995, when it was unable to obtain records about Earnest Gillum, a Huron High School physical education teacher. The records contained information about absences, disciplinary action against Gillum and tenure-track information. Gillum had resigned following his arrest for carrying a concealed weapon and soliciting an undercover police officer for prostitution.

The News wanted to use the records concerning Gillum as part of a story about tenure and some of the tenure system’s problems.

The school refused to release records about Gillum, so the News filed suit, claiming there was a legitimate public interest in why the school system had not taken previous efforts to remove Gillum, and that disclosure of past disciplinary records was the only means possible to find out.

The Washtenaw Circuit Court agreed with the News, and the court of appeals affirmed that judgment in Herald Co. v. Ann Arbor Public Schools, No. 186193 (Mich. Ct. App. June 20, 1997).

The appeals court agreed with the News that certain records the circuit court found to be exempt from disclosure should not have been keep closed based on the privacy and intra-agency exemptions of the Michigan Freedom of Information Act.

“[The exemption on disclosure] requires that the disclosed information be highly offensive to a reasonable person and of no legitimate concern to the public,” the three-judge panel wrote. “Here, the memorandum discussed Gillum’s professional performance as a teacher and in the classroom, an issue of legitimate concern to the public.”

Jonathan Rowe, attorney for the News, said a school district appeal is unlikely.

“The school seems to have lost interest in the case,” Rowe said. “They could appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court, but I would be really surprised if they did.”

Rowe said the decision sets a strong precedent for opening records, and follows the lead set by Lansing Association of School Administrators v. Lansing School District Board of Education, 549 N.W.2d 15 (1996).

The Michigan Court of Appeals ruled in Lansing that the school district involved had to disclose portions of administrators and teacher’s personnel records. The case is pending before the Michigan Supreme Court.