COEUR d'ALENE — The Coeur d'Alene School District's website includes a database of employment contracts for personnel ranging from administrators to teachers.
But when the contract of former Superintendent Matt Handelman was recently updated to include stipulations on his resignation and two months of consulting work, district officials determined the information was not for public consumption.
“I just shook my head and thought 'Here they go again,'” said Sen. Mary Souza, R-Coeur d'Alene. “Public agencies do not have it at the top of their head that they are spending public money and the public has the right to know how the money is being spent.”
As part of its reporting for an April 29 story titled, “His job ends...pay doubles,” The Press submitted a public records request for any documents or contracts related to Handleman's two-month tenure as a consultant with the district. That request was denied by the district, which stated the request is exempt from disclosure under Idaho personnel law.
After two additional attempts to obtain the records by The Press's attorney, John Magnuson, the district finally conceded Monday night while still maintaining that Handelman's amended contract is exempt from disclosure.
“It's a little disturbing to see a public entity, funded by taxpayer money, spend taxpayer money to keep information from the public without any legal basis,” Magnuson said.
In a May 15 letter to Magnuson, Megan O'Dowd, legal counsel for the district, wrote the district believes the amended contract “both qualifies as a public record and is subject to the exception for personnel records identified in Idaho code.” The district, she added, released the amended contract Monday night only because Handelman himself gave written permission allowing them to do so.
“The district has a duty to protect the personnel records of its employees and comply with the process set forth in Idaho statute,” said Casey Morrisroe, school board chair. “A failure to do so could expose the district to potential liability.”
Handelman's amended contract, approved by trustees on April 21, contains an identical description of his duties as a consultant as the one provided to The Press by Morrisroe. It also states Handelman “will not be required to maintain a desk or office present at the district office, or be present at district meetings and events.”
Morrisroe initially reported to The Press that Handelman would receive an additional $20,000 for his consulting work, almost doubling his monthly salary. The payment means Handelman will be paid more than $44,000 total for May and June.
Throughout Handelman's search for a new job over the past year, district officials and Handelman himself spoke positively of the time he spent with the district. However, in the amended contract, both Handelman and the district agreed to not “disparage” one another in any communication or action.
The contract also includes a confidentiality clause, with both parties agreeing the contents of the document will not be disclosed or released to “any person, entity, or media” without written consent from the other party. Morrisroe would not say why the confidentiality clause was included in the amended contract.
When Souza was informed of the decision by the Coeur d'Alene School District to not disclose Handelman's amended contract, she said she contacted the Idaho Attorney General's Office. Within 30 minutes, Souza said, she was provided with a relevant, 2012 court case from southern Idaho involving a local newspaper and the Blackfoot School District. Magnuson cited the same case in his second request for Handelman's amended contract.
In that case, a citizen filed a public records request for the separation contract of a superintendent who had retired. When the district refused, citing Idaho personnel law, the citizen took the district to court. The local newspaper joined the suit.
In his decision on the case, Judge David Nye ruled in favor of the citizen and newspaper.
The only difference between the Blackfoot School District's initial contract with the former superintendent and the separation contract, Nye added, is the separation contract contained language directing district officials to place the separation contract in the superintendent's personnel file to “protect it from disclosure efforts made under the Idaho Public Records Act.”
“Parties cannot exempt a public record from disclosure and hide it from the public simply by placing it in a personnel file and declaring the personnel file exemption to be applicable to it,” Nye wrote.
The 2012 decision by Nye was a local one and does not set legal precedent for all Idaho counties, Magnuson said. But any judge in Idaho trying a similar case would give Nye's analysis “considerable weight,” he added.
“If you get your personnel stamp out and stamp it on everything in the world, it doesn't mean it's actually exempt,” Magnuson said. “You can go get that stamp, but it isn't going to carry the day with the guy in the black robe.”
When asked by The Press if legislators should look at public record law next session in light of the Coeur d'Alene School District's refusal to disclose information, Souza said it should. But more important to Souza is that this instance serve as a reminder to public entities, as well as their legal teams, that they must be aware of the state's public record laws and any new updates to them.
“We should expect that legal counsel is advising our entities and keeping them up to date,” Souza said. “This decision is five years old and the district is still telling people it can't be given because it's in a personnel file, which is obviously misinformation.”
At the Coeur d'Alene School District, Morrisroe said Trina Caudle, director of secondary education, will continue to serve as “acting superintendent.” The additional responsibilities, Morrisroe added, will cause Caudle's salary to increase by $3,000 per month.
The district's board of trustees hopes to have an applicant selected to serve as interim superintendent for the 2017-2018 school year, Morrisroe added.
“It is our hope and expectation to have that position filled by June 30,” Morrisroe said. “The board will also be working to develop a nationwide search process to permanently fill our superintendent vacancy. We expect that search to commence in the fall and we look forward to engaging the community in this process.”
The Press has submitted a public records request for Caudle's amended contract.