The Press succeeded Monday night on its third attempt to get the Coeur d’Alene School District to make public the final contract it forged with outgoing Superintendent Matt Handelman. But it shouldn’t have taken two refusals. It shouldn’t have taken The Press investing so much time and incurring legal expense, or adding to district taxpayers’ legal costs by unnecessary back-and-forths between attorneys. It shouldn’t take a court date with the school district that now looks inevitable.
The school district and its legal team hold a very narrow and, we feel certain, inaccurate view of Idaho’s public record laws, and it likely will take a repeat of a 2012 court case to prove Coeur d’Alene School District is in violation of the law.
That 2012 case was eerily similar to the hidden records game Coeur d’Alene School District has been playing since Handelman resigned April 21. His resignation was announced following a school board executive session. When The Press sought a copy of Handelman’s final contract, which presumably showed what he would be paid and what work he’d be expected to do in exchange for that remuneration, the newspaper’s public record request was denied.
Press attorney John Magnuson stepped in, and his public record request on behalf of the newspaper was denied again.
Only when Magnuson presented a third request, citing the 2012 case, did the school district give in — but without acknowledging its misguided interpretation of the law and its disregard for the law’s intent.
See if this looks familiar.
In Bingham vs. Blackfoot School District No. 55, the district’s board returned from executive session and announced a separation contract had been made with its superintendent. The district refused to provide a copy of that contract, alleging it was a “personnel” matter and therefore not subject to public disclosure.
Judge David C. Nye of the Seventh Judicial District disagreed and forced the school district to make the separation contract public. In his ruling, he noted that a “court must start with the presumption that ‘all public records are open to disclosure and that all exemptions are narrowly construed.’”
Judge Nye essentially refuted Coeur d’Alene School District’s assertion that Handelman’s contract was a personnel record when he wrote, “[T]he Idaho Supreme Court has suggested that when a record is more a product of a public official or employee’s job rather than evaluation of an employee’s performance, it is not a personnel record.”
Emphasizing that point further, he wrote: “Parties cannot exempt a public record from disclosure and hide it from the public simply by placing it in a personnel file and declaring the personnel file exemption to be applicable to it.”
That’s exactly what counsel for the Coeur d’Alene School District has done. It deemed Handelman’s contract a personnel record and released it Monday night only after securing Handelman’s permission to do so — and trying to cast a magnanimous light on the divulgence.
One might think that after taxpayers had written the school district a check for $67.5 million just a couple of months ago, those taxpayers would have a right to know what they’re getting for a tiny fraction of their money. However, the school district doesn’t think its highest-paid employee’s contract is any of the taxpayers’ business. And they’re not alone. Other public entities, including the county and the city of Coeur d’Alene, have received legal advice that employee contracts aren’t public records.
With an interim and a more permanent school superintendent still to be determined, this story isn’t over. Their contracts should be a matter of public record, and if the district trustees again disagree, The Press will have no alternative but to prove them wrong in court. Then perhaps they’ll be more cognizant of their responsibilities to the public they’re supposed to serve.