December 18, 2014

Elyria
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Some teachers’ contracts conceal personnel files

COLUMBUS – Some union contracts contain loopholes that allow teachers to dodge attempts by parents and others to get a look at their personnel files for evidence of misconduct, a newspaper reported Sunday.

Union contracts throughout the state regularly imply that teachers` personnel files aren`t public and will not be shared with people who aren`t associated with the school district, a violation of Ohio`s public records law, according to a report by the Columbus Dispatch.

Some districts require written requests for a personnel file, or mandate a waiting period of several days after someone asks to review a file. Others ask anyone who requests a file to sign a form. The contract for Clearview schools in Lorain County gives the teacher or union representative the right to be present when a member of the public looks at his or her file.

Such roadblocks are illegal, according to Bill Mulbarger, human-resources director for the district. In 1990, Ohio public record laws were refined, opening to the public the personnel files of anyone who works for a tax-supported agency, including public schools.

“It`s simple: The law says you have every right to it, and you do have every right to it,” Mulbarger said.

The law says school districts must immediately make a personnel file available when someone asks to see it. Only certain personal information such as medical information or Social Security numbers, may be withheld or blacked out.

Contracts that attempt to block access personnel files are illegal and cannot be enforced, leading school districts to discourage public inquiry through the language in contracts, said Van Keating, a negotiator for the Ohio School Boards Association.

“School employees have never been very comfortable with the notion that they are public-sector employees and their records are open to public inspection,” Keating said.

Part of the problem may come from school boards, which represent the public, he said. Boards may feel pressured to approve contracts that are overly lenient toward teachers to avoid unpopular strikes, Keating said.

Several union contracts allow teacher`s discipline records to be purged after some time, leaving teachers guilty of serious offenses but with clean files. A contract for Dayton schools reads “all negative material will be removed from the file after 36 months,” as long as the teacher hasn`t offended again.

It`s not clear whether that means school districts destroy the records or move them to a separate, unofficial file. Both are violations of state law.

“I advise school boards never to agree to that. If a teacher does something that really shocks the community, you have to tell them, ‘Well, we erased the information,` “said Myron Lieberman, a Washington-based researcher and author of books about teachers and unions.

A recent investigation by the Dispatch into flaws in the state`s teacher discipline system revealed that disciplinary information often was absent from offenders` personnel records.