Education

Release more facts behind government firings, opinion advises

Many Corridor school districts only vague in response to The Gazette

Iowa Public Information Board logo. (Image via Iowa Public Information Board website)
Iowa Public Information Board logo. (Image via Iowa Public Information Board website)

The state’s governmental bodies should give more than a one- or two-word response to explain why public employees were fired or demoted to comply with a new provision of Iowa’s public records law, according to an advisory opinion from the Iowa Public Information Board director.

The Gazette requested the opinion last month after several Eastern Iowa school districts declined to provide a clear explanation of why employees were fired, forced to resign or demoted in the last year — despite a 2017 law requiring that be public.

The Iowa Legislature in February 2017 passed an amendment to Iowa Code Chapter 22 lifting confidentiality requirements surrounding some personnel records. It says the following information should be public:

“The fact that the individual resigned in lieu of termination, was discharged, or was demoted as the result of a disciplinary action, and the documented reasons and rationale for the resignation in lieu of termination, the discharge, or the demotion.”

The change was part of House File 291, which gave the state more leverage over public employees through collective bargaining. It also reduces the chances government agencies, trying to avoid scandals, will pass on bad apple workers to other employers.

Board opinion

But there’s scant direction in the law for how it should be applied, said Executive Director Margaret Johnson in the advisory opinion to be considered by the Public Information Board on Thursday in Des Moines.

“When there is no judicial interpretation of a statute, the word or phrase should be given its common meaning or definition. When used as a verb, ‘document’ means to assemble the facts, substantiate, support, verify, demonstrate, justify, or validate, among other definitions,” Johnson wrote. “Therefore, a ... description of ‘work rules’ or ‘performance’ would not be sufficiently documented. A more descriptive phrase, such as ‘forged an employer’s signature on a government form’ is better, but could be improved.”

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Johnson said she doesn’t think governmental bodies should be required to turn over emails or other correspondence that might include confidential personnel details.

She suggests an agency, when a public employee is fired, demoted or forced to resign, create a document listing what caused the disciplinary action and what action the agency took.

Johnson said she talked with the Iowa Attorney General’s Office about the topic before writing the opinion. That office, which provides legal advice and representation to state agencies, “may not agree with it” and could oppose it at the board’s meeting Thursday, she said.

But if the board approves the opinion, The Gazette likely would ask Johnson to work with Eastern Iowa school districts to make sure they are following the law.

Gazette request for information

In January, The Gazette requested the “documented reasons and rationale” for all employees fired, forced to resign or demoted from the Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Clear Creek Amana, Marion and College Community school districts. The newspaper later filed a similar request with Linn-Mar.

These requests came after a Cedar Rapids Washington High School substitute teacher, Mary Beth Haglin, was convicted in December 2016 of sexual exploitation by a school employee and a Marion school volunteer, Logan McMurrin, was convicted last May of three counts of sex abuse involving kindergartners.

Two districts, Clear Creek Amana and Marion, responded to the request saying they had not fired, demoted or forced any employees to resign between February 2017 and when the request was filed earlier this year.

Linn-Mar provided the names of three district employees, their jobs, that they were discharged and a one- or two word response why, including “performance” and “work rules.”

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Likewise, College Community supplied just the names of two employees and listed the number of the school board policies they violated.

“On advice from District legal counsel, we have provided all that is legally required from a public personnel records request,” district spokesman Steve Doser said.

College Community officials later said if the newspaper searched the internet for one of the employees, it would show a news article reporting that a criminal charge had been filed against her.

Akwi Nji, spokeswoman for the Cedar Rapids school district, said she would release only the names of the employees fired, demoted or forced to resign and a basic explanation, such as “disciplinary action — non-specific.” That information would have cost The Gazette $220.

The Iowa City district, which provided the most complete response of the Eastern Iowa districts, reported the names of four employees, their positions in the district, what actions were taken, dates of the actions and a sentence describing the reasons.

One sentence read: “Violations under Article XIX of the Negotiated Agreement which include leaving students unattended for extended periods, smoking on school grounds, failing to sign out when leaving during the work day, and arriving late/leaving early.”

More information needed, council says

The Iowa Freedom of Information Council said more thorough responses are needed for agencies to comply with the amended law.

“The purpose behind the change the Legislature made last year in the language in section 22.7 (11) was to remove a legal obstacle that government officials had said was preventing them from fully explaining to taxpayers or residents of a government jurisdiction how and why an employee was disciplined or removed from employment for his/her conduct,” Executive Director Randy Evans wrote in a letter to the public information board in support of The Gazette’s request for an advisory opinion.

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“The Iowa FOI Council believes the clear meaning of the term ‘documented reasons and rationale’ requires government entities to provide more than a generic four- or five-word statement to explain why an employee’s resignation in lieu of termination was requested or why the employee was discharged or demoted as part of disciplinary action.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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