Sunshine Week, a national initiative to educate the public about the importance of open government and promote public access to government information, begins Sunday. The Repository recognizes Sunshine Week by sharing examples of information that the public and parents can access from their own school district.

School districts process hundreds of documents each school day, many of them with information that drives officials’ decisions about how to educate Stark County’s children. 

Much of that information, especially if the school is funded by taxpayer money, is open to you, the public. And if you’re a parent, you have access to even more information.

“The general rule is everything that is documented in the public office is a public record unless there is an exception where some federal or state law protects it,” said Columbus attorney Mark A. Weiker of Albeit Weiker, who specializes education law and advocates for students and parents.

Weiker, who previously served as defense counsel to traditional public schools in Ohio, encourages parents of children under age 18 to review their child’s school file at least once a year. By doing so, parents can determine whether any information in their child’s file is inaccurate, misleading, incomplete or in violation of their child’s rights. Parents also can then seek to correct the information or, at least, attach a note to the file stating their objections to the information they believe is incorrect.

“A lot of parents do that with discipline records,” Weiker said. “They can’t get the discipline changed, but they can place their own statement in there."

He said most of the school districts have been responsive to his public records requests.

THE LAWS

Ohio’s Public Records and Open Meetings laws: Collectively known as “Sunshine laws,” they are found in the Ohio Revised Code (sections 149.43 and 121.22) and give Ohioans broad access to public school and government records and meetings, except in defined situations.

Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974: FERPA applies to all school districts, including some private schools, that receive federal funds under programs administered by the U.S. Department of Education. The law requires that parents have access to their child’s education records, and districts could face penalties or sanctions for failing to provide access. 

Ohio Student Records Privacy Act: Found in the Ohio Revised Code (section 3319.321), the law restricts the release of student records for people who are not the student's parents. 

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act: IDEA provides additional privacy protections beyond FERPA for students who are receiving special education and related services. It applies to all students with disabilities, including those who are placed in or referred to a private school or facility by a public agency and to those receiving special education and related services from a public agency. 

EXAMPLES OF SCHOOL RECORDS OPEN TO EVERYONE

n Contracts awarded to a business or individual for the purchase of a service or item.

n Directory information of students, such as the type of information that may be contained in a school yearbook or athletic event program. School districts designate what they consider directory information and must give parents the option of opting out of the disclosure. For the Canton City School District, public directory information includes student’s name, address, telephone number, birth date, place of birth, participation in officially recognized activities and sports, achievement awards or honors, weight and height of athletic team members, major field of study, dates of enrollment and date of graduation. Unlike with most other public records requests, school district officials can ask the person requesting the information about how the information is intended to be used as state law prevents the release of the directory information for use in a profit-making plan or activity. 

n Emails to and from school employees that pertain to school business. Records in employee private email accounts used to conduct public business also are subject to disclosure. 

n Employee contracts for teachers, athletic coaches, custodians, bus drivers, administrators, the superintendent and more.

n Financial documents such as budgets, monthly and yearly statements, financial forecasts, expense reports, payment vouchers and invoices.

n Forms and applications, such as employee hiring documents. 

n Employee performance evaluations, including the superintendent’s annual evaluation.

n Employee travel expense forms.

n Internal investigative records, such as when a school investigates a complaint against an employee. 

n Personnel files. Information such as Social Security Numbers, workers' compensation documents and medical records will be excluded or redacted from the release. 

n Policies established by the school board, such as the district’s rules on what’s considered tardy and an unexcused absence, its dress code and its disciplinary procedure (often available online through the school district’s website).

n Roster of employees.

n Salary information of personnel, including teachers, staff, athletic directors, principals, administrators, treasurer and the superintendent.

n School board agendas, meeting minutes (both in a draft and final form) and board resolutions.

n Test results by grade level, school building or district. Report cards for each school and each school district also are available online through the Ohio Department of Education.

 

EXAMPLES OF RECORDS OPEN TO PARENTS

(Applies to parents of children under the age of 18.)

n All the previously mentioned records that are available to the public. 

n Your child’s cumulative file, which contains his or her personal identification data, possible academic achievements, teacher reports, report cards, immunization records and disciplinary records.

n Your child’s discipline file, if applicable. Some schools may maintain a separate file regarding discipline issues.

n Your child’s compliance file, if applicable. A compliance file typically applies to students with disabilities and may contain records that the school system used to demonstrate it met the timelines, notification, and consent regulations required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Not all school districts choose to keep the records in a single file. 

n Your child’s confidential file, if applicable. A confidential file typically applies to students with disabilities and may include reports written as a result of the school’s evaluation, reports of independent evaluators, medical records, summary reports from evaluation team and eligibility committee meetings and your child’s Individualized Education Program. Not all districts maintain these records in a single file.

n Videotape that captures information specific to your child, such as a fight on a school bus. Exceptions apply. 

 

 EXAMPLES OF RECORDS EXCLUDED FROM RELEASE

n Notes by teachers, counselors and school administrators that were made for their personal use.

n Copies of emergency response plans and other security records.

n Records protected by attorney-client confidentially.

n Records shared during an executive session of the school board. Personally identifiable information of a student that could be used to make a student’s identity traceable. Parents and certain officials and entities as defined by law are exceptions.

Reach Kelli at 330-580-8339 or kelli.young@cantonrep.com.

On Twitter: @kyoungREP