Access to Teacher Records Should Be Restricted, Say Unions

But MEA Demands to See File of Teacher Who Resigned from Union

Michigan's two largest school employees' unions, the Michigan Education Association (MEA) and the Michigan Federation of Teachers (MFT), support a state law preventing citizens from viewing public schools' personnel records.

In early 1998, outgoing State Representative Robert Brackenridge of St. Joseph introduced House Bill 5615, a measure which would have exempted public school employee personnel files from Michigan's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). MEA and MFT lobbied the Legislature for passage of the bill. FOIA is used by journalists and other citizens to obtain public documents from government entities.

The Michigan Supreme Court ruled in July 1997 that the personnel files of government employees, including public school teachers and administrators, are matters of public record and therefore can be accessed under FOIA.

The MEA and MFT were joined by the Michigan Association of School Administrators in support of the bill. All three groups cited employee privacy concerns as their reason for supporting the proposed law.

But the Michigan Press Association (MPA), a professional journalists' organization, opposed the restrictions, saying that they would allow school districts to conceal important information to which the public should have access.

Mark Gribben, director of newspaper affairs for MPA, says there is no need for the law. "Since 1976, the year the Freedom of Information Act was enacted, the media has not abused the ability to view public employee records," Gribben told Michigan Education Report. "We're opposed to this legislation because the primary result would be to cripple the media's role as watchdog for the public."

Gribben cited the case of George Crear III, a Flint teacher who resigned over charges of sexual misconduct with students. Crear ended up teaching again in Florida where he molested a student who eventually committed suicide. In November 1997, Crear was convicted on five counts of sexual misconduct and is serving life in prison.

According to Gribben, HB 5615 would have allowed school districts such as Flint to legally conceal from public view complaints and records of sexual abuses in the files of teachers like George Crear.

Advocates of the bill disagreed. "None of us wants to protect poor employees," said Louise Somalski, legislative coordinator for the MFT. "We are merely trying to make sure supervisors are free to make clear and honest evaluations without the fear that they could become public at any time."

But Gribben asks supporters of this measure to show where the media has ever abused FOIA over the last 20 years. "We've never conducted fishing expeditions into personnel files. To insinuate that we will in the future is merely a scare tactic," he said.

At least one teacher wonders why the MEA would cite privacy concerns for its support of the new law when the union itself uses FOIA to access teachers' personnel records.

Frank Dame, a teacher at Ogemaw Heights High School in West Branch, lodged a legal complaint against the MEA when the union would not allow him to resign his membership in April. MEA officials refuse to recognize their members' right to resign in any month other than August.

After filing his complaint in October, Dame learned that the MEA had used FOIA to access his personnel file. "It's hypocritical for the MEA to use the Freedom of Information Act to access a teacher's personnel file while lobbying against that very same activity," said Mark Fischer, Frank Dame's attorney. "Mr. Dame's charge against the union has nothing to do with his performance as an educator. So what is the motivation here?"

For his part, Dame is unruffled by the MEA's request to see his personnel files. "I've got nothing to hide," he said.

It is uncertain whether the new Legislature will introduce another bill similar to last session's HB 5615. The original bill's sponsor, Brackenridge, could not run for re-election under Michigan's term limits law.

MEA officials declined the opportunity to discuss this story.