LAND O'LAKES — News of Joel Chandler's fall request for information sparked immediate outrage among school employees in Pasco County and across Florida.
He wanted, among other things, the names of dependents who receive health insurance coverage under the districts' policies. People turned to their lawmakers seeking relief. Some man in Polk County couldn't get the names and addresses of their children simply because they work for a public school, could he?
The thing is, under current law it appeared that he could, the state Attorney General's Office said in a November advisory letter to state Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland.
"It may be advisable," the office suggested, "for the Legislature to clarify its intent on this issue."
That's exactly what some lawmakers now aim to do.
Senate president pro tem Mike Fasano, who received several complaints from his Pasco and Citrus county constituents, filed a bill last week that would make confidential "any personal identifying information, including, but not limited to, the name, address, e-mail address and telephone numbers, relating to the health and benefit coverage of [a public school] employee and his or her spouse and dependents."
Dockery and state Rep. Seth McKeel, another Lakeland Republican, jointly filed legislation in December that would exempt "personal identifying information of a minor dependent of a current or former officer or employee of an agency, which dependent is insured by the agency group insurance plan."
The lawmakers said the law needs changing.
Allowing the release of personal identifying information, especially of children, is "just wrong," Fasano said.
He recalled an e-mail from a Pasco school secretary that "broke my heart" because "she was just scared to death about her safety."
McKeel said school employees had a right to be angry.
"Their children's information should not be made available," he said.
Both legislators said they intended to craft a narrow record exemption, and not to broadly attack the state's public records law. Some people might want to make a wider exemption for all school employee information, McKeel said, but "that's not my purpose."
Chandler said he supports the effort to block certain information about children from the public, although he did take issue with the idea of shielding the names of employees who receive the insurance benefit.
His main concern, he said, "is individual public officials deciding they're going to ignore the law."
Chandler explained that many school districts attempted to stall his records request, and several did not respond at all. Pasco fell somewhere in the middle, he said, nowhere near as bad as nonresponsive Duval but also not close to fully responsive Collier.
In coming weeks, Chandler said, he plans to file even more records requests in Florida school districts — particularly those that didn't respond well to his initial query. Among his worst offenders are Manatee, Lee, Orange, Lake and Marion counties.
"This has left me feeling more motivated than I was in the first place to continue this," said Chandler, who started seeking information from all 67 districts after running into resistance in Polk.
He said he had no plans to use or sell the data he receives. He simply wants to see if districts will provide it as the law requires.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.