October 23, 2006
FROM: Robert J. Freeman, Executive Director
The staff of the Committee on Open Government is authorized to issue advisory opinions. The ensuing staff advisory opinion is based solely upon the facts presented in your correspondence.
I have received your letter in which you asked whether "a teacher’s passing rate/student success rate [can] be foiled." In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, the Freedom of Information Law pertains to existing records, and §89(3) states in part that an agency is not required to create a record in response to a request. Therefore, if no record exists reflective of passing/rate or student/success rate relating to particular teacher, a school district would not be required to prepare a new record in order to satisfy the request.
Second, as a general matter, the Freedom of Information Law is based upon a presumption of access. Stated differently, all records of an agency are available, except to the extent that records or portions thereof fall within one or more grounds for denial appearing in §87(2)(a) through (j) of the Law.
If the record at issue exists, I believe that it would be accessible, for subparagraph (i) of §87(2)(g) requires that statistical or factual information contained within internal governmental communications must be disclosed, unless a separate exception may properly be asserted.
Even if no statistical or factual compilation exists, other records enabling the recipient to prepare his or her totals would be accessible in relevant part. For instance, a class list of students with their grades would, according to judicial precedent, be accessible, so long as students could not be identified. Relevant under the circumstances is the initial ground for denial, §87(2)(a), which pertains to records that are "specifically exempted from disclosure by state or federal statute." In this instance, insofar as disclosure of the records in question would or could identify a student or students, I believe that they must be withheld. A statute that exempts records from disclosure is the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act ("FERPA"; 20 U.S.C. section 1232g). In brief, FERPA applies to all educational agencies or institutions that participate in grant programs administered by the United States Department of Education. As such, FERPA includes within its scope virtually all public educational institutions and many private educational institutions. The focal point of the Act is the protection of privacy of students. It provides, in general, that any "education record," a term that is broadly defined, that is personally identifiable to a particular student or students is confidential, unless the parents of students under the age of eighteen waive their right to confidentiality, or unless a student eighteen years or over similarly waives his or her right to confidentiality. Further, the federal regulations promulgated under FERPA define the phrase "personally identifiable information" to include:
"(a)The student's name;
(b)The name of the student's parents or
other family member;
(c)The address of the student or student's family;
(d)A personal identifier, such as the student's social security number or student number;
(e)A list of personal characteristics that would make the student's identity easily traceable; or
(f)Other information that would make the student's identity easily traceable" (34 CFR Section 99.3).
Based upon the foregoing, references to students' names or other aspects of records that would make a student's identity easily traceable must in my view be withheld in order to comply with federal law.
In a case dealing with a similar request, the records of test scores were prepared by class, alphabetically. The school district contended that, even if names of students were deleted, because the lists were maintained alphabetically, the identities of some students might be made known. In determining the issue, the Court ordered that names be deleted from the records and that the records be "scrambled" in order to protect against the possible identification of students [Kryston v. East Ramapo School District, 77 AD 2d 896 (1980)]. Stated differently, the grades must be disclosed, but any identifying details pertaining to students must, in my view, be withheld.
Lastly, with respect to a teacher’s privacy, pertinent to the issue is §87(2)(b), which permits an agency to withhold records to the extent that disclosure would constitute "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.’ Based upon the judicial decisions, it is clear that public officers and employees enjoy a lesser degree of privacy than others, for it has been found in various contexts that those individuals are required to be more accountable than others. The courts have found that, as a general rule, records that are relevant to the performance of the official duties of a public officer or employee are available, for disclosure in such instances would result in a permissible rather than an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy [see e.g., Farrell v. Village Board of Trustees, 372 NYS 2d 905 (1975); Gannett Co. v. County of Monroe, 59 AD 2d 309 (1977), aff'd 45 NY 2d 954 (1978); Sinicropi v. County of Nassau, 76 AD 2d 838 (1980); Geneva Printing Co. and Donald C. Hadley v. Village of Lyons, Sup. Ct., Wayne Cty., March 25, 1981; Montes v. State, 406 NYS 2d 664 (Court of Claims, 1978); Powhida v. City of Albany, 147 AD 2d 236 (1989); Scaccia v. NYS Division of State Police, 530 NYS 2d 309, 138 AD 2d 50 (1988); Steinmetz v. Board of Education, East Moriches, Sup. Ct., Suffolk Cty., NYLJ, Oct. 30, 1980); Capital Newspapers v. Burns, 67 NY 2d 562 (1986)]. Conversely, to the extent that items relating to public officers or employees are irrelevant to the performance of their official duties, it has been found that disclosure would indeed constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy [see e.g., Matter of Wool, Sup. Ct., Nassau Cty., NYLJ, Nov. 22, 1977, dealing with membership in a union; Minerva v. Village of Valley Stream, Sup. Ct., Nassau Cty., May 20, 1981, involving the back of a check payable to a municipal attorney that could indicate how that person spends his/her money; Selig v. Sielaff, 200 AD 2d 298 (1994), concerning disclosure of social security numbers].
In the context of your inquiry, the records are relevant not only to the performance of the students in certain classes but also the teachers of those classes. Therefore, in my opinion, again, the teachers’ identities must be disclosed.
I hope that I have been of assistance.