July 31, 2018

Removing a school official for an alleged unauthorized disclosure of confidential information

Removing a school official for an alleged unauthorized disclosure of confidential information
Decisions of the Commissioner of Education, Decision of the Commissioner No. 17,422

This appeal to the Commissioner, among other issues, concerned allegations that confidential information was disclosed and that the alleged wrongdoers should be removed from office.

With respect to the application to the Commissioner seeking the removal of a board member from the School Board "for impermissibly disclosing confidential notes," the Commissioner observed that a member of the board of education or a school officer may be removed from office pursuant to Education Law §306 when it is proven to the satisfaction of the Commissioner that the board member or school officer has engaged in a willful violation or neglect of duty under the Education Law or has willfully disobeyed a decision, order, rule or regulation of the Board of Regents or Commissioner of Education.

Further, explained the Commissioner, "[t]o be considered willful, the board member’s actions must have been intentional and with a wrongful purpose" and   in an appeal or removal application to the Commissioner, the petitioner has the burden of demonstrating a clear legal right to the relief requested and the burden of establishing the facts upon which petitioner seeks relief.

School board members, as public officers, take an oath of office to uphold the law and faithfully discharge their duties and, among other things, are responsible for educational standards, budget matters, management issues, and health and safety. In carrying out their duties, school board members individually "have a fiduciary obligation to act constructively to achieve the best possible governance of the school district.

The Commissioner said that General Municipal Law §805-a(1)(b) specifically provides that no municipal officer or employee, including a school board member, shall “disclose confidential information acquired by him [or her] in the course of his [or her] official duties or use such information to further his [or her] personal interests” and within the public school system, the term “confidential,” means “[i]nformation that is meant to be kept secret.”

As to defining the meaning of the word "confidential," it is the "sole province of the Commissioner of Education to define the meaning of the word 'confidential' within the public school system and ensure its uniform application in this context."* Further, said the Commissioner, "[i]t is well-settled that a board member’s disclosure of confidential information which violates General Municipal Law §805-a(1)(b) may constitute grounds for a board member’s removal from office pursuant to Education Law §306.

Jessica Lovinsky and Phee Simpson [Petitioners] in this appeal claim that a board member disclosed “unredacted” notes to a newspaper reporter and buttress their claim with an email from the reporter to counsel for Simpson in which the reporter states that she is “writing an article on the Poughkeepsie district’s graduation investigation and subsequent appeal,” and that, in the article, she planned to “cit[e] records that relate[d] to Phee Simpson. The email also purported to include three attachments that Petitioners have attached, contending that they are copies of these three attachments.

The School District's answer to Petitioners' appeal to the Commissioner denied Petitioners' contentions. 

The Commissioner ruled that Petitioners failed to meet their burden of proving that the School Board, as a body, or any individual school board member was responsible for disclosing the documents in question to the reporter or to anyone else. 

The Commissioner explained that the first element of a claimed disclosure of confidential information is disclosure, and a petitioner must prove that the alleged actor or actors did, in fact, disclosed allegedly confidential information. Here, however, said the Commissioner,  "Petitioners have wholly failed to meet this showing, providing no facts or assertions suggesting that any respondent provided the [newspaper reporter] with the allegedly confidential information."

Accordingly, the Commissioner dismissed Petitioners' application seeking the removal of the board member.

* N.B. In 2005 State Education Department Counsel and Deputy Commissioner for Legal Affairs notified school officials, including school board members, and school attorneys of the Commissioner's decision in Application of Nett and Raby (45 Ed Dept Rep 259, Decision No. 15,315)] that the Commissioner’s views with respect to the term "confidential" differed from the interpretation of the term “confidential” offered by New York State’s Committee on Open Government.

The Commissioner's decision is posted on the Internet at:

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