A Nevada County judge has ruled against The Union newspaper in its efforts to force Nevada Joint Union High School District to disclose documents pertaining to the termination of former Superintendent Marianne Cartan.
The paper filed a complaint last month against the school district board of trustees, seeking the release of the information pursuant to the California Public Records Act.
But after conducting his own review of the documents, Nevada County Superior Court Judge Sean Dowling denied The Union’s petition for a writ of mandate, ruling that no records were found that would trump Cartan’s privacy interests.
“Obviously, we are disappointed with the ruling,” said The Union Editor Brian Hamilton. “To this point, the district’s elected officials have declined to share their rationale with the community on the decision to terminate Marianne Cartan’s contract. We took this action to gain access to public records in order to shed some light — in order to inform the public — as to why the board decided to change the leadership of the district.”
Following Cartan’s termination “without cause” March 13, the district’s board of trustees declined to provide information to the public on the rationale for its 3-2 decision.
Reporter Jennifer Terman filed a public records request specifically requesting Cartan’s last three evaluations. The school district’s attorney, A. Christopher Duran, provided the agenda and minutes from the March 13 board meeting, as well as a copy of her contract. But Duran said all other records were privileged and contained confidential personnel information that was exempt from disclosure.
Cartan, who made $135,000 a year, had received a positive annual review in December 2012. Following her release in March, board President Katy Schwarz acknowledged the teachers’ association had declared a no-confidence vote in Cartan in a survey that had been provided to the board.
The school district had conducted its own survey of school administrators, and that was also reviewed by the board prior to its decision to terminate Cartan.
Those two surveys, as well as the performance evaluations, were among the records that were requested by The Union.
Dowling previously said the bottom line was the balancing of the right to individual privacy versus the Public Records Act.
In the ruling issued Wednesday, Dowling noted that disclosure of personnel records of the type requested by The Union have only been ordered in very limited circumstances that include allegations of misconduct.
“Out of an abundance of caution, the Court in fact reviewed the documents to determine if issues of sufficient public interest were buried within ... The in-camera review showed no evidence of any conduct supporting disclosure as a matter of public policy.”
Dowling wrote that public curiosity is not a substitute for public interest, which must be substantial. And because there are no allegation of misconduct or complaints sufficient to heighten the public’s interest — or any evidence of those — Cartan’s privacy interests “clearly outweigh” the public interest in disclosure.
“With all due respect, we feel the judge missed the point on why the public has a very legitimate interest in knowing why Cartan was terminated,” said The Union’s attorney, Tom Kelley, noting that she was let go “without cause” after the teacher survey, despite receiving good reports and contract extensions.
Kelley added that no decision has been made as to whether The Union will appeal Dowling’s ruling.
“It’s very much under consideration,” he said.
To contact City Editor Liz Kellar, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4229.