Records request for Wayland, Mass. school boss evaluations drags on

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By Richard Lodge, editor, MetroWest Daily News, Framingham, Mass.

A public records request for school superintendent performance evaluations stretching back more than five years just keeps dragging on.

This past New Year’s Eve day (2009), the state Supreme Judicial Court ruled that e-mails expressing the opinions of Wayland School Committee members about Superintendent Gary Burton’s job performance, back in 2004, had to be made public.

The SJC ruled that any discussion — oral, written or through an electronic medium — of the professional performance of an official must be done in the public eye, the weekly Wayland Town Crier reported recently.

The Town Crier had filed an Open Meeting Law complaint with the Middlesex County DA’s office in 2005, after members of the Wayland School Committee conducted part of their job evaluation of Burton via e-mail messages. The school board chairman at the time, Jeff Dieffenbach, requested and received the e-mailed comments from three of the other four board members and boiled them down into a draft evaluation, which was then discussed in closed-door sessions.

The newspaper believed that, under the Open Meeting Law, discussions of the superintendent’s job performance had to be done in public, even if those “discussions” were done via e-mail from board members to the school board chairman and, eventually, the SJC agreed.

After the court ruling, the Wayland committee released copies of the e-mails as well as individual comments created for Burton’s performance evaluations from 2004 to 2009. But the release of records in response to a public records request from Wayland resident Alan Reiss included 61 redactions and some missing written comments by Dieffenbach.

Reiss filed a complaint with the Middlesex DA in January, requesting a review of the redactions and asking that the missing information be restored and released to the public.

Although the SJC ruling in late December was heralded by the Town Crier, its parent company, GateHouse Media and by Robert Ambrogi, director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, as a win for transparency, some concern remains. The ruling said individual board member’s written comments about job performance must be public, as if they had been spoken in a meeting, but the final written evaluation of a superintendent is not a public document.

Speaking about the SJC ruling, Ambrogi told the MetroWest Daily News (a sister paper of the Town Crier),  “I thought it was significant in the fact that it affirmed and made clear that discussion of government employees must be made public.”

But Glenn Koocher, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association for School Committees, told the Daily News that the fact final written evaluations aren’t considered public documents could allow for a higher level of secrecy when it comes to public employee evaluations.

“There could be some concerns that boards will save their most acerbic comments for the drafting process,” he told the Daily News. “That’s where the ugly discussions could take place. This could be less of a win for people who cover this process if school committees save their controversial comments for the writing process.”

To date, the Middlesex DA’s office has not ruled on Reiss’s complaint about the latest, partial document release.

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