Emails and Open Records Law
Iowa Code chapter 22 is Iowa's Open Records law. A public record includes email messages sent and received by a school district (or AEA or any public) employee on his/her school-owned computer.
Just because the emails are public records does not mean that every word within the communication gets released. Items that potentially could be expunged (e.g., omitted by using white-out) may include students' names, parents' names, home addresses, other "home" information, SSNs, etc. What information - if any - gets expunged depends on the context and intent of the email. Some senders of email to district employees have some limited rights of privacy regarding their identity, again depending on all of the facts and circumstances. School administrators should check with their school attorneys when a request for copies of emails (or any public document) is received.
By putting staff email addresses on a school’s website, the school is implying that staff will actually read and respond to email. Any school that publishes its email directory really should go to great pains to impress upon staff that checking email is not an option. Staff should be coached to check periodically and to respond timely to email.
Because emails to or from a district employee on a school computer are public, it is wise to remind all employees of this. (If board members communicate to administrators via e-mail, it is prudent to also include them in any reminders.) In addition to the above information, consider include the following in a memorandum to staff:
Your school computer is not your property.
- Emails sent/received on your school account are subject to open records law. Remember that any parent may ask to see school email about their child. Avoid this real life email exchange between a school bus driver and a transportation supervisor:
Driver: "You have to do something about the situation with (Student)."
Supervisor: "What's the problem?"
Driver: "His mother."
When Mother saw the e-mail, she was not amused.
- Personal use such as E-BAY accounts are not allowed. Questionable internet sites are misuse of public property. The media, taxpayers, and any member of the public may ask to see how district employees use their school computers.
- Instant messaging (IM'ing) is treated in the same manner as e-mail
Each month, the Iowa Attorney General publishes a "Sunshine Advisory" regarding open meetings and public records. To read these, go to http://www.iowaattorneygeneral.org/sunshine_advisories/index.html
Open Records Lawsuit Settlements
No school district is immune from lawsuits. They are a fact of this life. Settling a lawsuit short of trial is generally a good thing. But, unlike private parties, a school district or community college cannot keep the terms of a settlement secret unless expunging certain information is necessary to prevent an "unwarranted invasion of personal privacy or trade secrets."
These means that a written summary of terms of all settlements must be available to the public. The summary must include amounts of payments made and to whom the payments are made. This includes claims paid by insurance. See Iowa Code section 22.13: "A written summary of the terms of settlement, including amounts of payments made to or through a claimant, or other disposition of any claim for damages made against a governmental body or against an employee, officer, or agent of a governmental body, by an insurer pursuant to a contract of liability insurance issued to the governmental body, shall be filed with the governmental body and shall be a public record."