Association of Texas Professional Educators
 

 

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The Texas Public Information Act

The recent release of teacher certification scores to television stations by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) took many educators by surprise and brought attention to the Texas Public Information Act (TPIA). The 80th Legislature addressed this matter of confidentiality through the passage of Senate Bill 9, which requires educator certification scores from the first five test attempts to be kept private. It’s important to know that much of your personnel file is considered public information under this act because you’re an employee of a public school district.

What is the TPIA?
Found in Section 552 of the Texas Government Code, the TPIA states that anyone can make a public information request of a governmental body, such as an independent school district. Submitting a written request to the school district’s public information officer is all it takes to get information. The request does not need to include special language or even mention the TPIA.

Once a request is made, the school district, with a few exceptions, must comply by “promptly producing” the information for inspection or duplication. The act defines “promptly” to mean “as soon as possible under the circumstances; that is, within a reasonable time, without delay.” This is commonly interpreted to mean within 10 business days. Be aware that if you request copies that amount to 50 or more pages, the school district can charge for the copying. (If the cost will exceed $40, the school district is required to send an estimate before fulfilling the request.)

When a TPIA request is made, the school district cannot inquire as to why the information is being requested or ask how it will be used. Further, if someone requests information pertaining to you in your capacity as a school district employee, the district does not have to inform you before fulfilling the request. If a school district questions the legality of a request or release of information, it has 10 business days to request that the Texas Attorney General review the request and decide whether the information must be released.

How the TPIA affects public school employees

The Texas Public Information Act states that it is the public policy of the state of Texas that “each person is entitled . . . at all times to complete information about the affairs of government and the official acts of public officials and employees.” The Act goes on to provide, with some specified exceptions, that all “information that is collected, assembled, or maintained under a law or ordinance or in connection with the transaction of official business” either by or for a governmental body is presumed to be public information and must be made available to the public during normal business hours.

Public school districts are subject to this act, and school employees are directly affected by this act in three ways. First, certain information about public employees is available to any person who requests it. Second, much of the information created by school employees may be available for public inspection. Third, school employees have a right to obtain most documents related to their employment or district practices.

Most information in an employee’s personnel file is considered public information, including the employee’s service record, certificates, salary, employment contract, college transcripts (except the grades received), degrees, sex, ethnicity, title and dates of employment. Only information that falls within a specific exception written into the law or that would constitute a legally recognized unwarranted invasion of personal privacy may not be disclosed to the public. Private information includes things such as tax forms and benefit elections, criminal history information, medical information, and, recently, most certification testing information. For teachers and administrators, this also includes any documents that evaluate performance. All information must be made available to the individual employee, however.

The home address and telephone number of an employee are also available to the public, unless the employee requests in writing that such information not be disclosed. (Social Security numbers are automatically private for living employees.)

If the information requested contains highly intimate or embarrassing acts, release of which would be highly objectionable to a reasonable person, and if the information is not of legitimate public concern, then the portion of the document containing such information may be withheld.

A school district may not withhold information simply because the creator expected the information to remain private or because of an agreement to hold the information in confidence. For example, a written statement that is offered to an administrator on the condition that the author’s name not be revealed may not be withheld by the district simply because the author requested or expected that the statement would remain confidential. The information in the statement must meet the test described above to be withheld.

If a district believes that requested information may be withheld under this test, the district must obtain an opinion from the Attorney General unless the Attorney General has previously ruled on the information in question.

Documents and records created by school employees in the course of their duties are generally considered public records, and many are subject to disclosure under the act. The largest exception to this general rule is for student records. Student records, including any record that identifies or might identify particular students, generally are available only to the student’s parent or guardian, educational personnel with a legitimate educational purpose, and the student. If the information requested can be cleansed to prevent identification of individual student information, then it may be released. For instance, if the district receives a request for the grades received by students in a particular class, the district may not turn over the teacher’s grade book because that would identify grades received by individual students. The district may only release the information requested if it can be released in a form that does not reveal the individual identity of the students.

Lesson plans are sometimes subject to the act but may only be released if they are general in nature. Lesson plans that include actual or potential test items, or any other information that could compromise the integrity of the testing or evaluation process, may be withheld by the district.

As the state says, the citizens of Texas "do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know." Full and complete information is the rule, rather than the exception.

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The legal information provided on this website is for general purposes only. It is not intended as a substitute for individual legal advice or the provision of legal services. Accessing this information does not create an attorney-client relationship. Individual legal situations vary greatly and readers should consult directly with an attorney. Eligible ATPE members should contact the ATPE Member Legal Services Department using our online system, MLSIS.
 

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