Photo by Jessa Pease.
Hoover Board of Education Building
The head of a Hoover-based nonprofit says she feels vindicated after the Alabama Attorney General’s Office issued an opinion April 3 that says the Hoover school board must approve her public records request for data revealing compensation school employees receive by name.
In a letter to Donald Sweeney, the lawyer representing the Hoover Board of Education, Brenda Smith of the state attorney general’s office cited several examples of opinions in other Alabama cases that “settled that payroll records, such as salary or other compensation, are public records.”
“The Hoover City Board of Education is required to disclose, by name, the compensation of employees under the Open Records Law,” wrote Smith, the chief of the Opinions Division in the state attorney general’s office.
The decision is a major victory for Trisha Powell Crain, founder of the Alabama School Connection, who filed her original request for the pay records of Hoover City School employees more than a year ago in January 2014.
Crain issued a statement April 5 saying she is “pleased that Attorney General (Luther) Strange held true to the many prior opinions of the Attorney General’s office on this very same issue.”
“It is odd and, quite frankly, a shame that the Board felt it needed to take the time and incur the expense of revisiting the issue yet again with the Attorney General,” Crain said. “We fully expect Hoover school officials to comply with both the law and the Attorney General's advice and look forward to reviewing these public records as soon as possible.”
Hoover Board of Education officials, citing privacy concerns of employees, originally fought Crain’s request. School board members said that having employee pay made public could open the system up to potential lawsuit and caused friction among many teachers and other front-line employees. They also said it could cause them to lose some of their best teachers to other systems or to retirement.
Crain then hired an attorney, prompting the Hoover school board to vote March 16 to seek the state attorney general’s opinion on the following question, “Are the names of employees of the Hoover City Board of Education public records in addition to their compensation?”
You can see the full Alabama Attorney General’s full opinion saying the data requested is public record below:
In response to the state attorney general opinion, Hoover Board of Education President Donna Frazier issued a statement saying the board respects the attorney general opinion, but adding the matter is an “overriding concern to our employees.”
“The request for the personal salary information for every employee of the Hoover School District came from one person,” Frazier said. “Our employees let us know loud and clear they considered this request to be an assault of their individual privacy. The Board thought so too. Our employees shared vivid and compelling reasons why their individual privacy concerns should be respected.”
Frazier added that Hoover school employees “did not and do not understand why the public interests would be served when the exact salary amounts for all positions were already made available” without revealing names.
Crain, whose Alabama School Connection is a blog devoted to writing stories related to Alabama K-12 education, said she made it clear in an article dated Dec. 29, 2014 that her request is not personal. A link to that original blog is here: http://alabamaschoolconnection.org/2014/12/29/the-quest-for-payroll-records-350-days-and-counting/
“Since this request was first made in January 2014, concerns about levels of education funding continue across the state of Alabama,” Crain said in her April 5 statement. “With personnel costs accounting for 80 to 85 percent of a school district's expenditures, employee compensation continues to be an important part of that discussion.”
Smith, the Alabama Attorney General’s Office Opinions Division Chief, wrote to Hoover school board lawyer Sweeney that their “concern about the privacy rights of employees may be valid, but that is a matter for the Legislature to address.”
Frazier said in her statement that she hopes out of respect for Hoover school employees, this opinion “will clarify why the public disclosure law needs revision and, therefore, will serve as a basis for the Alabama Legislature to make changes to the law.”
“The public disclosure law needs to be refined to more appropriately balance privacy concerns with over reaching disclosure of information that is already available in less invasive forms," she said.