Monday, October 2, 2006
Investigative Report on School Superintendent Held Public Record
Public Interest in Learning Whether School Chief Got ‘Sweetheart Deal’ Held to Trump Privacy
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
An investigator’s report on his probe of a school superintendent who subsequently negotiated a severance agreement with his district must be disclosed under the California Public Records Act, the Third District Court of Appeal ruled Friday.
“Californians have a constitutional right to access the records of their public agencies,” Justice George Nicholson wrote for the court. “ They have a strong interest in knowing how government officials conduct public business, particularly when allegations of malfeasance by public officers are raised.”
That right overrides the privacy interests of Robert Morris, the former superintendent of the Dunsmuir Joint Union High School District, Nicholson concluded, contrary to the ruling of a judge in Siskiyou Superior Court.
The justice explained that the district investigated after receiving 13 letters accusing the superintendent—who was also the principal of the district’s only school—verbally abused students and sexually harassed female students. After listening to parents’ complaints in closed session, the board retained private investigator Diane Davis to probe the superintendent.
In May 2004, with the investigation still in progress, the board met in closed session with Morris for more than two hours before announcing that the superintendent and the board had agreed that Morris’ contract would not be extended beyond its scheduled expiration in June 2006.
While Davis’ report was not made public, several witnesses received letters from the investigator summarizing what they had told her. Copies of some of those letters and summaries of the interviews, marked “Confidential,” were obtained by an area newspaper, the Redding Record Searchlight.
In July 2004, Morris and the board reached an agreement on the termination of the superintendent’s employment. Morris agreed to take paid leave immediately and to resign, effective Dec. 31 of that year, and to stay away from the school and its activities while on leave, in exchange for a $5,000 annual raise.
The board also agreed that the entire contents of Morris’ personnel file would remain confidential, except as required by law. Following the meeting, some 40 tort claims related to Morris’ conduct and the investigation were presented to the district.
The company that publishes the Redding newspaper made a California Public Records Act request for the Davis report, Morris’ letter of resignation, and other documents related to the superintendent’s employment. The district provided everything requested except the Davis report, as to which the district claimed a CPRA exemption.
The newspaper company brought a petition for writ of mandate seeking the report. All of the county’s judges recused themselves or were disqualified, and retired Trinity Superior Court Judge John K. Letton was assigned to hear the case.
In Camera Review
After in camera review, Letton held that nearly all of the report was protected by the personnel records exception to the CPRA, as well as the “catchall” exception that applies whenever the public interest in disclosure is “clearly” outweighed by the interests served by secrecy.
Portions of the report in which the investigator found that Morris had a tendency to yell at students inappropriately were ordered disclosed, but the rest of the report, Letton said, was exempt from disclosure, even though it tended to exonerate the superintendent.
The petitioner appealed, backed by the California Newspaper Publishers Association, The Copley Press, Inc., and Los Angeles Times Communications LLC as amici.
Nicholson, writing for the Court of Appeal, said the trial judge erred.
The justice noted that the personnel records exception only applies when disclosure “would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,” and that exceptions to the CPRA must be interpreted narrowly.
He acknowledged that Morris’ privacy rights are “significant.” But because he is a public official, his record his subject to a heightened level of public scrutiny, Nicholson wrote, distinguishing cases in which the courts upheld the confidentiality of State Bar disciplinary complaints and of records implicating the privacy interests of lower-level public employees.
Even if the undisclosed portions of the report are exculpatory, Nicholson continued, the public has a legitimate interest in learning how the investigator reached her conclusions and why the board made what some members of the public called a “sweetheart deal” in order to get Morris to leave the district with two years left on his contract.
“The public’s interest in judging how the elected board treated this situation far outweighed the Board’s or Morris’s interest in keeping the matter quiet,” the justice wrote.
The court did, however, limit the disclosure somewhat, directing that the names of persons other than Morris and the board members—teachers, students, parents and staff members—be redacted. It directed that the report be released in redacted form within 30 days unless the Supreme Court grants a stay.
The case is BRV, Inc. v. Superior Court (Dunsmuir Joint Union High School District), 06 S.O.S. 5284.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company