Pasco school records demands whip up outrage

Debbie Valvo was outraged.

Some man from Polk County wanted her name, address, job title, age, phone number and, most irksome of all, the names of her dependents. All because she works for the Pasco School Board.

"We all understand the need for the release of 'public' information related to the Sunshine Law, but this does not appear to be a substantial, valid request," Valvo, a secretary in the maintenance department, wrote to the superintendent's office.

"Dependent information especially should be hands off. We are the School Board employees, not our families and children."

Others share her concerns.

School district employees across Florida have lodged similar complaints with their superintendents and with state lawmakers, as Joel Chandler, a Lakeland business consultant, has made the same request of all 67 Florida school systems.

Chandler already has sued Polk schools — and won — for that district's initial refusal to provide the records. And he's signed off to sue at least four others, including Hillsborough, for failing to follow through with his public information request in a timely manner.

"It's a civics lesson," Chandler explained. "I'm not going to sell the information. I'm not going to distribute the information. That's not the point. It's that they are denying public information."

That's hard for many school employees to buy.

From employees' perspective, someone is gathering a treasure trove of information that any marketer would love to own. And they want some protection.

"Even if Mr. Chandler's request was for the most altruistic purposes, I am concerned about the future of that data storage," Lecanto High teacher Martha Sleep wrote to lawmakers. "There is no control as to where it could end up. The ramifications of this problem are extensive, especially in this age of identity theft."

Officials in Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough and Hernando schools said they're looking into what information that Chandler has requested. But after a Polk judge ruled that the information was public and told the Polk district to pay the $35,000 legal bill — districts are not looking to fight.

"There's just no exemption that protects this information while it's in the district's hands," said Dennis Alfonso, the Pasco School Board's lawyer.

Legal protection

That hasn't stopped lawmakers from seeking a resolution.

State Sen. Paula Dockery, who represents parts of Polk and Hernando counties, asked the Florida Attorney General's Office to clarify whether release of dependent information would violate any laws. In its response issued late Monday, the Attorney General's Office suggested the issue was not so clear.

"Clearly, information relating to an insurance program participant's medical condition is protected from disclosure. However, there is no clear statement that such protection extends to the name, address, age or other non-medical information of such participants," Assistant Attorney General Lagran Saunders wrote.

"Due to the lack of clarity in this matter and in light of the recent decision by the Polk County Circuit Court, it may be advisable for the Legislature to clarify its intent on this issue."

Dockery could not be reached for comment. But state Sen. Mike Fasano, who represents portions of Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando, said his staff is already preparing a legislative "fix."

"It goes to information that there's no need for anybody outside the school district (to have) other than to make money or to harass somebody," Fasano said. "We certainly don't want to close the public records Sunshine Law we have completely. But we certainly want to protect some privacy of our school employees."

Chandler said he would support such an effort.

"I think it is something the Legislature should consider," said Chandler, who began his public records crusade as a lesson for his four homeschooled children. "It's something else, though, for a public official to say, 'I'm not going to give it to you.' "

If public officials willfully refuse to provide public records, he said, "That's something worth fighting over."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

Pasco school records demands whip up outrage 11/10/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 11, 2008 8:52pm]

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