Court rules evaluation of Wis. school superintendent is public record

A state appellate court acted to defend the public interest when it ruled on Feb. 12 that a school board must release its evaluation of a former superintendent.

The Wisconsin Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit unanimously upheld a previous state circuit court decision holding that the public interest in an evaluation made of former Rhinelander Superintendent Robb W. Jensen outweighs any potential damage to his reputation.

Concluding a case fought by a local newspaper at considerable cost, the ruling champions journalists’ and the public’s right to know.

The northern Wisconsin Rhinelander school board hired Jensen in 1998 on a salary of $95,000 plus numerous benefits, including fully paid family health insurance and two years’ paid administrative leave.\n \nPrior to its decision not to renew Jensen’s contract, the board conducted an evaluation of him for the 1999-2000 school year.

When The Rhinelander Daily News filed an open-records request for the document in spring 2000, the school board notified Jensen and he filed a lawsuit seeking to block release of the document.

Circuit Judge Mark Mangerson ruled last May that the evaluation should be released, and the appellate court agreed.

Justice J.P. Hoover wrote in the court’s opinion that media reports of Jensen being placed on paid administrative leave had already adversely affected his reputation, and that the public’s right to know why the board acted to not renew his contract outweighed Jensen’s interest in protecting his reputation.

SPLC View: Access to employee evaluations is a controversial issue, with lawmakers and courts in different states coming down both for and against their public disclosure. For more information on the topic, you may want to obtain a copy of our publication, Access to Faculty and School Employee Evaluations. You can also find specific information about your state’s open records in Tapping Officials Secrets, a wonderful publication of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Cite: Jensen v. School Dist. of Rhinelander, 2002 WL 207506 (Wisc. App.)