Personnel Files and the Board

              One matter that is confusing for many board members is the subject of personnel records.  The personnel records of a school district are considered open record but as a board member, it is highly discouraged that you access personnel records.  Why is this?  If Joe Smo off the street can put in a record request and view a teacher’s file, why shouldn’t a board member?  This is a question that both new and veteran board members ask.  As you may guess the answer isn’t black and white.

As a board member, you may be asked at some point to essentially be the jury at a staff disciplinary hearing.  At a disciplinary hearing, you are supposed to be a neutral party.  Herein lies the problem with accessing personnel records.  When a board member accesses a personnel file, they open themselves up for a claim of bias.  If a claim of bias is upheld, it could result in the decision of the board being appealed.  The same goes for a disciplinary hearing for a student (such as expulsion).  If you are asked to be a part of such hearings, there is an expectation that you have not yet made up your mind.   Ideally, you are looking over the facts and making a judgment based on those facts presented.  If you receive information that is slanted before such a decision is made, it can be argued that your opinion was swayed before the facts of the case have been brought to your attention. Worse yet than this would be an argument you came to the hearing with a decision already made.   These are protections for the people we employ so that proper due process occurs.

Chain of Command

Chain of Command

This may seem strange when placed next to the fact an open records request can be made by anyone in the community to view personnel files.  The simple answer to this is that they do not have the responsibilities or duties of a board member.  This can make the experience of asking your administration how an issue was handled frustrating.   You may want more details and confirmation that the matter was dealt with appropriately.  Yet, for the very same reason as viewing personnel files, your administrator is very limited in what is appropriate to share.  If you are questioning what was done in regard to a disciplinary matter, teacher or student, you can follow the chain of command.  If your principal is handling a matter, then your superintendent can check on the matter.  If there is an issue at the superintendent level, your board president may be able to look further into the matter.   This does not mean you’ll be told exactly what happened or how it will be handled.  It just means that the person checking on the situation can confirm it was dealt with appropriately.

If the matter comes to the board president, it is important to keep a few things in mind.  Your administration is trained in conducting investigations and procedural safeguards.  Board members are not often trained in these matters.  Should your board president be tasked with investigating a matter that has reached the board level after going through the chain of command, he will still need to exercise certain precautions.  For example, if a complaint arose that the superintendent was not doing principal evaluations, the board president could follow school procedures to look at the personnel files in question to see if evaluations where indeed getting done.  The president should not; however, be looking through other documents in the personnel file not pertinent to the investigation.

School Board

School Board

As a board member, you only have authority as a full board.  Acting on matters individually can often open the decisions of a board up to be questioned.   There are also legal considerations in which you may not be well versed.  For example, tampering with personnel files can be a violation of century code and potentially open a board member up for criminal charges or the district to a liability lawsuit.  Keep this information in mind when you’re frustrated at what information is being shared with you as an individual member of the board.  There is very likely a good reason that details are limited.

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