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State: School District 833 responded appropriately to records request

South Washington County Schools responded appropriately to a request for data on school board applicants, a state agency concluded.

School District 833 was obligated to review applications before releasing public data to the Bulletin, according to an opinion issued last week by the Minnesota Department of Administration’s Information Policy Analysis Division.

However, the state agency also noted the school district applied the wrong law when it initially refused to release applicant data.

The Information Policy Analysis Division helps to resolve disagreements over the Minnesota Data Practices Act. The nonbinding opinion sought by the Bulletin dealt with the release of data about applicants for the recent vacant school board seat. (Seven people applied; Michelle Witte won the appointment and will be sworn in July 17.)

The Bulletin had requested that all applications be made public as they were submitted during the application period in late May and early June. The newspaper cited a state law that makes public certain information about applicants to an elected body.

The district denied the request at the time, citing a different law as well as previous state advisory opinions and an attorney general’s opinion.

The filing period ended Friday, June 2. All of the application materials were made public at the conclusion of a June 5 board meeting at which all applicants were considered finalists and would be interviewed.

The district said it needed time to review and process the applications.

Minnesota Department of Administration Commissioner Spencer Cronk said in the opinion that the district’s response was “prompt and reasonable.”

Also at that June 5 meeting, the board approved a resolution stating that board members are considered elected officials, not district employees, for the purposes of personnel data laws. That makes more data about board members public.

Superintendent Keith Jacobus said the opinion supports the district’s actions.

“What I hope is that the public would see that there’s a difference in opinion on maybe how things were applied at first, but ultimately we didn’t do anything inappropriately,” Jacobus said.

Jacobus added that the school board’s decision to classify board members as elected officials ensures transparency moving forward.

“The board really was concerned about not having any gray area in the future,” Jacobus said.

Mark Anfinson, an attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association, said the opinion makes clear that applicant data that is listed as public is immediately public.

“This is an important clarification of the law in terms of when and under what circumstances information about applicants for public positions are accessible to the public,” Anfinson said.

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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