Open records expert says district’s reasoning for withholding the document inadequate
By Adam Hocking
MARSHFIELD — The Marshfield School District has denied Hub City Times’ request, pursuant to Wisconsin’s open records law, asking for a copy of the resignation letter of former district occupational therapist Lisa Scheunemann, a move with which an open records expert disagrees.
School board member Mary Carney requested to read the resignation letter at a June 28 board meeting but was ultimately discouraged from doing so. Carney said at the time, “I think there’s some concerning things in there about why she (Scheunemann) decided to resign.”
Carney initially seemed open to supplying local media with the letter but later emailed Hub City Times, “Under advice of the WI Association School Board attorney, I will not be able to send out a copy of Lisa Scheunemann’s resignation letter. “
Marshfield School District Superintendent Dee Wells sent a letter to Hub City Times on Wednesday, which said the requested records “are exempt from disclosure under Wis. Stat. [19.36 (10) (d)] and/or after applying the balancing test, they are not subject to disclosure due to the public’s interest in preserving the confidentiality of certain employee personnel records.”
The balancing test
In the “balancing test,” “The records custodian (in this case the district) must balance the strong public interest in disclosure of the record against the public interest favoring nondisclosure,” according to the Wisconsin Public Records Law Compliance Guide.
“Specific policy reasons, rather than mere statements of legal conclusion or recitation of exemptions, must be given,” in applying the balancing test, according to the state compliance guide.
Wells’ letter provides little in the way of “specific policy reasons” for denying Hub City Times’ request.
“In my opinion, they cite the balancing test. They don’t apply it. I don’t see that they’ve performed a thoughtful analysis of the reasons that nondisclosure is more in the public interest than disclosure,” said Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, an entity that works to ensure access to state and local government documents.
“The idea of the balancing test is that records in Wisconsin are presumptively open unless you can demonstrate that the presumed public good in having a maximum amount of access to information is outweighed by the harm that could come from releasing information in a certain case,” Lueders said.
Reference to state statute does not hold up
State statute [19.36 (10) (d)], which Wells cited as a reason the resignation letter is “exempt from disclosure,” says “information relating to one or more specific employees that is used by an authority or by the employer of the employees for staff management planning, including performance evaluations, judgments, or recommendations concerning future salary adjustments or other wage treatments, management bonus plans, promotions, job assignments, letters of reference, or other comments or ratings relating to employees” does not have to be disclosed.
Lueders said he did not see how the state statute Wells cited relates to Scheunemann’s resignation letter.
“I think they should be releasing this letter,” Lueders said. “I’m not seeing any reference to letters of resignation in the statute in the section that they cite.”
On Thursday Hub City Times made an informal request to school board member Amber Leifheit for the letter, but she also declined to provide it, saying that she felt the statute Wells cited does apply to this situation.
State law does provide for other exemptions from open records requests related to personnel documents, protecting details such as a home address or Social Security number. Lueders said if there was such an issue with Scheunemann’s letter, the sensitive information could be redacted and the document still released.
Lueders said the fact that the resignation letter was sent to school board members was further reason to release it. Carney noted at the June 28 meeting that the resignation letter was addressed to the school board, Wells, and Director of Student Services Tracey Kelz.
“Whatever claim to confidentiality that you might make — and I’m not convinced there’s any good claim that you can make on this letter — is completely exploded by the fact that the employee chose to share it with public officials,” Lueders said.
He later added, “I just think it’s unfortunate that the district is reflexively trying to keep the public from knowing of a concern that was shared with elected officials and which an elected official felt was important enough to try to address at a public meeting.”
Hub City Times has reached out to Scheunemann, who has not responded to a request for comment on this story.