Elementary school district denies two separate FOI requests

ILLINOIS -- An elementary school district has denied two separate Freedom of Information Act requests this month, sparking debate about what sorts of records schools are obligated to open to the public.

A parent in Hoover-Schrum Elementary District 157 in Calumet City, Ill., spoke to the school board there last week about the district's denial of his FOI request asking for a classroom-by-classroom breakdown of students' scores on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test. Early this month, the district also denied an FOI request filed by The Northwest Indiana Times, which covers news in both Indiana and Illinois, to obtain the resume of incoming superintendent Rosemary Hendricks.

According to an article in The Times, its request came after conflict of interest allegations against Hendricks surfaced. Hendricks, who officially takes office Saturday, is the wife of the dean of the district's Schrum Memorial School.

Representatives from The Times did not return calls for comment, but in an editorial about the school's refusal to produce the resume, the paper stated: ''The system of government in the United States is made stronger by its checks and balances. When the public is denied access to information like this, that system is weakened.''

In the editorial, the newspaper also called for legislatures in both Illinois and Indiana to specifically include resumes as public documents under the states' open records laws.

Scott Sievers, assistant public access counselor in the Illinois Attorney General's Office, said the Illinois Freedom of Information Act is not completely clear as to whether resumes of public officials can be withheld from the public. Although the law states that ''the disclosure of information that bears on the public duties of public employees and officials shall not be considered an invasion of personal privacy,'' Sievers said an exemption in the law allows the ''personnel files and personal information'' of a government employee or applicant of a government job to be withheld.

Sievers said that a state appellate court case, Copley Press Inc. v. Board of Education, also might be applied to the situation. This case included resumes on a list of items that could be found in a ''personnel file.'' However, Sievers said that because the case centered around written school employee evaluations instead of resumes specifically, its application to this situation is debatable.

''I can understand where a public entity might get the idea where it can withhold a resume, and they do have some authority to take that position,'' Sievers said. ''But the law is actually not ironclad as to whether they're exempt or not because it has not been squarely addressed.''

Representatives from Hoover-Schrum could not be reached for comment. However, another

Times article quoted a statement by current district superintendent Michael Wierzbicki about the second FOI request regarding the parent's appeal for test scores.

''Please be advised that the Illinois State Board of Education, which provides the ISAT test results to the school district, does not provide a report of test scores for individual teachers and classrooms,'' Wierzbicki wrote. ''Accordingly, the school district does not have any documents responsive to your request.''

Sievers said Illinois open records laws would not require Hoover-Schrum to request such information from the state in order to comply with an open records request.

''Under our law you really only have to produce records that you have,'' Sievers said. ''So if they don't have a record to answer a question posed to them, they don't have to create a record to answer it.''

Hoover-Schrum Elementary District 157, Illinois, news