State high court opens personnel files

MICHIGAN — The Michigan Supreme Court upheld this summer a decision that portions of administrator and teacher files are open under the state open records law.The first of two cases that were combined began in 1993 when the father of one of high school teacher Christine Bradley’s students made a freedom of information request for the release of her performance evaluations, disciplinary records and complaints filed against her.Bradley sued the board of education of the Saranac Community Schools and the Saranac School District to prevent the release of her personnel records. The court ruled in 1993 that the documents were not exempt from disclosure and should be released.Also in 1993, the Parents Support Network, a group whose mission is to monitor the education process on behalf of African-American families, filed a open records request to the Lansing School District Board of Education. They were seeking copies of performance evaluations for nine principals employed by the school district.The Lansing Association of School Administrators, representing the principals, sued the school district to stop the school board from disclosing the information. A court again ruled in favor of the school district and held that the information must be released.Both Bradley and the Lansing Association of School Administrators appealed and the court of appeals consolidated the cases. The appeals court upheld the decisions of the circuit courts.Bradley and the Lansing Association of School Administrators then appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court which heard the case last March. The July supreme court decision agreed that the requested personnel records must be disclosed, reasoning that the “information is related to the [school official’s] public employment and not within the privacy exemption [under the open records law].”Dawn Phillips, a media attorney who wrote a brief on behalf of the board of education in the Lansing case, said this is an important case for student journalists.”What this decision essentially says is that [the student press] can have access to any documents about a teacher’s or administrator’s performance,” Phillips said.She also said this ruling has impact on government officials beyond the school. As a result, Phillips said there may be problems regarding the decision.Legislation has been introduced into the Michigan Legislature which would reverse this decision.”There are several bills pending that would essentially gut this decision,” Phillips said.House bill 4936, introduced on June 27 and referred to the Committee on House Oversight and Ethics, states that a public body may exempt personnel files that clearly warrant invasion of personal privacy.The bill also states that a public body may exempt from disclosure “…information in connection with the performance of the duties of that public officer.”A similar bill was introduced into the state senate in January 1997 Senate bill 22 was referred to the Committee on Government Operations.Both bills still sit in the committies and have not been acted upon.