As we wrap up Sunshine Week, we reflect on a prime example of how public officials go from dancing in the light to dancing in the dark.
Greenwood School District 50 has danced quite a bit, picking and choosing its dance partners, if you will, in releasing public documents. In one instance a district employee's personnel file is released to the media as public record, in another it is kept filed away. In one instance district emails are made public, in another they are not.
Most recently, this newspaper, through the Freedom of Information Act, sought documents pertaining to a former District 50 teacher's lawsuit against the district. In her suit, Townsend Kirkland accuses the district of breach of contract, violation of her right to free speech and violation of due process under the district's own code of procedures, in addition to other claims. The district claims it properly handled Kirkland's dismissal, stemming from something the teacher posted on her personal Facebook account.
School officials refused to give the paper copies of any email exchanges involving Kirkland, even though the emails would be considered public documents as they are a part of her public record as a public employee. The district contends releasing the emails would be an invasion of privacy; however, through the FOIA law, the district can exempt or black out emails that pertain to personal information such as medical records. Instead, it uses a blanket "invasion of privacy" claim in denying the newspaper's request.
The district also denied the paper's request for a copy of the teacher's Facebook post and any related comments, with superintendent Darrell Johnson again using the blanket claim releasing the information would be an "unreasonable invasion of personal privacy."
One would assume this means the Facebook information is not public, would it not? Yet, the newspaper was able to secure a copy of the Facebook information. How? Through some covert operation? No. The document was contained in a very public document filed in a federal court and available electronically.
District 50 refused to release public information some of the best minds say falls within the realm of public record. It even refuses to release information the public can access through court records. And the district stands its ground, saying it would rather spend more taxpayer dollars letting the matter of public vs. private be hashed out among attorneys and before a judge than comply with state law. Does that make sense?
Step into the light, District 50.