After high court rejects case, Jeffco must release names of teachers who called in sick in protest

The Colorado Supreme Court on Monday declined to review a state appeals court decision holding that sick-leave records are not part of a public school teacher’s confidential personnel file.

The denial of certiorari means that Golden parent Kathy Littlefield will finally get the names of teachers who called in sick from four Jefferson County high schools over two days in September 2014.

Some of the teachers said at the time they were taking “collective action” to protest school board policies. When Littlefield requested the teachers’ names, the Jefferson County Education Association sued to block their release. The union lost in district court, and the Colorado Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s decision in January.

“I still want the names,” Littlefield said Monday. “Those teachers could transfer to the school where my kids are at, and I’d like to know who they are. I think other parents would like to know too.”

By Tuesday, Littlefield had already received some information on teachers who called in sick, Jeffco Public Schools spokeswoman Diana Wilson said. She added that Littlefield may receive more after the school district finishes researching her request.

Attorneys for the union contended that teacher-absence records are private and protected from disclosure under the personnel files exemption of the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA). The records sought by Littlefield, they claimed, are “a classic example of information maintained because of the employer-employee relationship” that must not be disclosed to the public under CORA.

The Court of Appeals, however, held that this phrase in the open-records law – “information maintained because of the employer-employee relationship” – refers to information “of the same general nature as an employee’s home address and telephone number or personal financial information.”

The appellate court noted that “a teacher’s absence is directly related to the teacher’s job as a public employee.” It added that sick-leave records pertain to language in CORA that requires disclosure of “any compensation, including expense allowances and benefits, paid to employees by the state, its agencies, institutions, or political subdivisions.”

Because the Court of Appeals’ ruling stands, it is now a binding decision that may help determine the outcome of a separate government-employee records case pending in Arapahoe County District Court.

A judge last week heard arguments in that case, which involves complaints and disciplinary actions against Cherry Creek School District bus drivers, requested by 9NEWS for recent stories on school bus safety. As in the Jeffco case, government-employee unions have sued to block the release of the records, claiming they are part of a driver’s confidential personnel file.

9NEWS attorney Steve Zansberg, who is president of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, disputed that argument in court, noting the Court of Appeals’ narrow construction of the personnel records exemption. The exemption applies only to “information that is highly personal and private,” he said, not to information related to a public employee’s job performance.

The CFOIC has intervened in the bus driver records case on the side of 9NEWS as have The Denver Post, KCNC-TV, KDVR-TV, KMGH-TV and the Associated Press. The CFOIC and several news organizations submitted friend-of-the-court briefs in the Jeffco sick-leave records case.