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Highlands fails in argument to keep employee’s name secret | TribLIVE.com
Valley News Dispatch

Highlands fails in argument to keep employee’s name secret

Brian C. Rittmeyer
1093121_web1_vnd-highlandsbudget-021919
File photo
The Highlands School Board meeting on Monday, Feb. 18, 2019.

Highlands School District should not have kept secret the name of an employee it suspended in February, the state’s Office of Open Records has ruled.

The office issued a final determination Tuesday in response to an appeal filed by the Tribune-Review after Highlands refused to release the employee’s name. The school district now has 30 days to formally release the employee’s name.

The office’s six-page determination said Highlands failed to show why the employee’s name should be exempt from public disclosure under the state’s Right-to-Know Law.

Highlands wound up identifying the employee Friday, before the Office of Open Records issued its decision, in response to a separate Right-to-Know request regarding a $31,202 settlement agreement with former special education teacher Andrew B. Kotyk. Ira Weiss, the district’s solicitor, confirmed Kotyk was the employee placed on unpaid leave in February.

Highlands School Board approved the deal in March. Kotyk resigned the same month.

Neither Weiss nor school board President Debbie Beale could be reached for comment Tuesday.

“The Right-to-Know Law is pretty clear that employee names are not confidential. It shouldn’t be this hard for a reporter or any citizen to receive such elementary information,” said Alan Shuckrow, an attorney for the Trib.

The school board didn’t identify Kotyk when it approved a statement of charges against him and placed him on unpaid leave at its Feb. 18 meeting.

The Trib immediately filed a Right-to-Know request for the employee’s name, job title or position, length of employment and salary. The newspaper also requested a copy of the charges against the employee.

In a March 27 response, the district withheld the employee’s name and the statement of charges, claiming they were exempt from public access. It disclosed that the employee was a high school special education teacher who began working for the district in March 2005 and had been making a $64,310 salary this school year until his tenure with the district ended March 18.

The newspaper’s appeal addressed only the release of the employee’s name. It did not appeal the refusal to release the statement of charges.

The Right-to-Know Law “places the burden of proof on the public body to demonstrate that a record is exempt,” Open Records appeals officer Magdalene C. Zeppos wrote in her decision.

The district, which had identified Kotyk on a meeting agenda only as “Employee No. 5381,“ argued that it referred to the employee by number “to protect their confidentiality, which an employee enjoys until a final disposition is proposed.”

But Zeppos wrote in her decision that the “name of an employee is not a record listed as exempt under (the law). Moreover, the names of public employees have long been considered public.”

The decision noted that the district’s website “includes a directory that lists district employees’ full names, positions and work email addresses.

“Further, (the law) expressly provides that the name of an agency employee is generally subject to public access,” Zeppos wrote.

At an April 15 meeting, while the Trib’s appeal in the Kotyk case was pending with the Office of Open Records, Highlands School Board approved a statement of charges against another unidentified employee and placed the employee on unpaid leave.

The Trib formally objected at the meeting, noting that action without identifying the employee may violate the state’s Sunshine Act because residents could not offer meaningful comment without knowing the employee’s name.

The newspaper filed a Right-to-Know request for that employee’s name and public employment information. The district invoked a 30-day extension, which is provided for in the law. A response is due by May 23.

Brian C. Rittmeyer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Brian at 724-226-4701, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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