Last spring, 4J Superintendent Shelly Berman announced that he would be resigning from his position. However, he will finish out the rest of this school year until the school board finds a replacement.
With Berman’s upcoming resignation, the Register-Guard requested that the Eugene School District release 12 pages of emails containing information on the board’s evaluation of Berman. The Lane County District Attorney’s Office ordered the district to disclose the documents, but when the Register-Guard received them, many of the pages were whited-out, preventing the newspaper from gathering the information. When the Register-Guard again insisted on the documents, the district filed a lawsuit against the local newspaper, hoping to receive a judicial order that would overrule the district attorney.
“We deal with this situation quite a bit,” Director of Human Resources and General Legal Counsel of the Register-Guard Wendy Baker said. “We’ve had to appeal records across the city of Eugene, with the University of Oregon, with EWEB – this is not an unusual practice for us to take when they refuse to release records that we believe the public has a right to.”
Although the school board filed a lawsuit against the Register-Guard, the Register-Guard will only act as a defendant, meaning they will not have to face legal damages, nor will they have to pay the school board any fees.
“We think that it’s our job to go after those records. The only unusual thing about this was that they were not going to disclose the records after the district attorney told them to. The way to avoid that is to file a lawsuit,” Baker explained. “It’s not a lawsuit exactly against the Register-Guard; we’re named as defendant, [but] it’s really what’s known as a declaratory judgment. And what they want the court to do is to declare that the records are excluded and that they should not be released.”
While the Register-Guard believes the superintendent’s review should be made public, the school board disagrees.
“We went through more than 500 pages of the requested records, and on a line-by-line review we determined that there were certain things that they were requesting that should not be given to the media” 4J school board chairperson Jim Torrey said.
The school board felt that this action fell within the exemptions in the Oregon Open Records Law.
“We carefully considered the public’s right to know what the allowable exemptions that the public records law allows us to take into consideration, and in the end it was determined that just a few pages fell within more and more of those exemptions,” Torrey said, meaning the board carefully considered what should be shared and what information was protected. “When we didn’t agree to present those pages they took our issue to the District Attorney’s office.”
Furthermore, the school board felt it was not fair to release Berman’s evaluation because it was never finalized.
“We’ve always presented in an open meeting the finalized superintendent’s evaluation,” Torrey said. “This evaluation wasn’t finalized because the superintendent decided he was going to do something else as of the end of June of this year, so we didn’t complete the evaluation. As a result we didn’t present any of the earlier comments or findings to the public [because] we didn’t think it was appropriate because it wasn’t completed.”
So far no moves have been made to resolve the situation, but both groups are seeking a compromise.