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Was Chico Unified School District Protecting or Withholding Information?

The Chico (California) Unified School District wasn’t trying to keep information from the public when it sought to block emails from being released under public records laws, according to two district officials who were involved in the case. Instead, they say, the district’s lawsuit against a university where some officials moonlighted was merely an attempt to prevent legitimately confidential emails from being released.

Privacy%20Policy%2046679502-001.jpg“The only reason why we ended up in a lawsuit was to protect people,” said Andrea Lerner Thompson, who is a former member of the school board. Indeed, Lerner Thompson and current member Kathy Kaiser claim to have supported releasing the records. However, because both women used their university email accounts to handle public business for the district, they argued that no emails from those accounts should be released because legitimately confidential university information might be leaked in the process.

The problem began when a former principal for the district, Jeff Sloan, requested copies of all district-related emails. When it came to light that Kaiser and Lerner Thompson, along with fellow officials Bob Feaster and Rick Rees, had been using their Chico State University staff email accounts to handle district business, Sloan requested copies of those emails.

The women claim that they used the university accounts for district emails for the sake of convenience only. Even though the practice effectively hid district business records from being discovered in a district records search, Lerner Thompson says no one was attempting to circumvent laws requiring public access to district documents.

When the case reached the Butte County Superior Court, it was dismissed by Judge Barbara Roberts because all involved parties had finally agreed on a resolution. Prior to the court date, a court-appointed special master had reviewed the situation and all sides had agreed on a plan that would protect confidential university emails and release only district-related emails.

In an unfortunate twist, some confidential information included in the released emails was not properly redacted from the documents. This information was made public when the records were made available online. The emails have since been removed from the Internet.

If you are a California school administrator with a question about student/teacher safety, special education, accommodations, student rights, free speech or discipline, or school employment law, feel free to call attorney Richard Oppenheim at 818-461-8500. There is never a charge for an initial consultation and we can help you choose the best direction to resolve any school district legal issue.