School board: superintendent applications are not public records while at post office

OHIO — The Cincinnati School Board is hoping a postoffice box will shield superintendent candidates’ resumes from publicrecords requests until all applications are in.

Information posted on the district’s Web site instructs applicants tosend resumes and other materials to Post Office Box 198008in Cincinnati, where they will sit untouched until March 16. Ohio statelaw specifically allows access to resumes submitted for public employment, butschool board President Eileen Cooper Reed said the applications will not qualifyas public records until they’re picked up March 16 because the board willnot technically receive or use them until then.

“Based on what I can tell, it’s not a record until we useit,” she said.

In an editorial published Feb. 5, the Cincinnati Enquirer arguedthat the school board is using the post office box to deliberately hide thehiring process from the public.

“That way board members won’t have to put up with pesky members ofthe public commenting on the caliber of the candidates, or lobbying for a deepercandidate pool, or arguing for or against a particular candidate,” theeditorial states. “In other words, the board will be able to keep theprocess carefully tucked out of public view until it is too late for the publicto have much input.”

Cooper Reed said the board is not trying tohide the names — it just wants to release the names at the same time tokeep the process fair. The names will be announcedimmediately on March 16, and resumes will be released once they can be checkedfor possible redactions.

“We really did want to be open, we just wanted to be able to do agood superintendent search without putting our candidates in jeopardy,” Cooper Reed said.

Releasing the names too early hurts the search, she said, because potentialapplicants might not apply if their names are announced while the search isongoing. Though many states exempt certain job candidates’ resumes fromopen records requests, Ohio law explicitly allows access to resumes submittedfor public employment.

“I understand why the school board doesn’t like [the law] andfeels that the policy of privacy should trump — but itdoesn’t,” said attorney Jack Greiner, who represents theEnquirer for public records issues.

Greiner said the newspaper believes the applications are received by theschool board — and therefore public record — when they arrive in thepost office box controlled by the district, regardless of when someone retrievesthem. It is too early to say whether the paper will take legal action, hesaid.

Frank LoMonte, director of the Student Press Law Center, compared the postoffice box to a bank account.

“I would invite the members of the school board to try telling theIRS that money direct-deposited into their bank accounts is not’theirs’ until they withdraw the money and spend it,” he said.

“Please send me a postcard from tax jail and let me know how that workedout.”

Enquirer education reporter Ben Fischer filed a request for thedocuments Feb. 5. Under Ohio records law, requested publicrecords must be “promptly prepared and made available.” Though thereis no specific time limit in the law, Fischer said he typically hears back aboutrecords requests within about two weeks. In 2002 the state Supreme Court ruledthat candidates’ resumes in a search for a school district treasurershould have been released the same day they were requested.

This is not the first time the Cincinnati School Board has come up withplans to avoid releasing documents. During a superintendent search in 2002, theschool board evaded requests for information by not keeping applicants’resumes. Candidates were told to bring copies of their resumes to closed-meetinginterviews and take them back unless they wanted their names made public. Whenthe Enquirer asked the state to force the school board to release theresumes, the state Supreme Court concluded there were no documents to offerbecause documents must be “kept” to meet the definition of a publicrecord. Furthermore, the court ruled, the school board had no responsibility tokeep those records.

Greiner said that if the school board tried doing that again, the newspaperwould argue the district was violating an Ohio statute that requires publicagencies to follow a records retention policy. The latest example of keepingapplications in the post office box is another “elaborate scheme to avoidthe application of the law,” he said.

“I wonder if that’s what they teach their students thatthat’s what you do when you disagree with the law,” he said.

LoMonte agreed that the school board needs to remember it is in thebusiness of educating young people.

“The board is sending a horrible message that, first, you get todisobey laws you don’t agree with, and second, that it’s legitimateto look for loopholes that allow you to evade and frustrate the intent of thelaw,” he said. “The board would never accept such a’gotcha’ level of legal compliance from its employees or fromstudents.”

Cooper Reed said she thinks releasing the information all at once on March16 is well within the law, but she would still like to see Ohio law changed toallow more confidentiality when hiring public employees.

“The whole purpose of the open records act is to make sure nothing iskept from the public, and I get that,” she said. “But the public hasalso entrusted us with the responsibility of selecting a superintendent. When itcomes to personnel and things like that, I believe the open records act ought tobe changed.”