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Judge orders school district to release superintendent's records

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    NMU         ARIZONA         Freedom of Information    

Judge orders school district to release superintendent’s records

  • The ruling marks the first time an Arizona state judge has ruled a school superintendent’s personnel files are public records, a media lawyer says.

Nov. 21, 2003 — An Arizona judge on Tuesday ordered the Tempe Union High School District to release the personnel files of Superintendent James Buchanan, saying performance evaluations and disciplinary files are public records.

“The public’s right to know . . . outweighs the potentially harmful effect and embarrassment upon the Superintendent,” Superior Court Judge Michael Jones ruled.

The district’s Governing Board says it is considering an appeal.

The Arizona Republic filed a lawsuit in August to obtain the records, three months after a Chandler, Ariz., judge signed a restraining order barring Buchanan, 51, from contacting Maria Alexander, 43. Alexander, whose daughter attends school in the district, claimed that Buchanan was threatening and stalking her.

Buchanan admits he had “an inappropriate relationship” with Alexander, but denies her other allegations. After the school board’s attorney investigated the allegations and ruled them unfounded, board members decided not to discipline Buchanan.

“This is a classic case of a public agency keeping secret information which the public has every right to review,” said Arizona Republic Deputy Managing Editor Steve Wilson. “Both the allegations against this superintendent and the board’s response to those allegations are clearly matters of public interest.”

Jones noted in his decision that the first qualification of a superintendent, as listed in the district’s policy manual, is that he “be of good moral character and unquestionable morals and integrity.”

“If the Superintendent is not fulfilling his most important duty, the people living within the school district have a right to know this information,” Jones held.

Attorney David Bodney, who represented the Republic in the lawsuit, said this was the first time a court in Arizona ruled that a superintendent’s records are public. Bodney vowed to fight an appeal, saying he hoped the decision would “put to rest the notion that the top administrators of our public schools are somehow immune from compliance with the state’s public records law.”

The school district had argued that the records were confidential under the state’s education privacy laws.

In 1999, the Arizona state legislature voted to make superintendent personnel files confidential, but then-Gov. Jane Hull vetoed the legislation. “My administration stands for openness in government, no matter how unpleasant,” she said at the time.

Buchanan was hired by the board in 1991, and currently makes an annual salary of $122,000. The Tempe Union High School District operates on an annual budget of $100 million, and has more than 13,000 students in seven high schools.

(Phoenix Newspapers Inc. v. Tempe Union High School District No. 213, Media Counsel: David J. Bodney, Phoenix) MC

© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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