This is an opinion of the Commissioner of Administration issued pursuant to section 13.072 of Minnesota Statutes, Chapter 13 - the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act. It is based on the facts and information available to the Commissioner as described below.
Facts and Procedural History:
On February 26, 2004, IPAD received a letter dated February 25, 2004, from James Knutson, an attorney representing Independent School District 97, Moose Lake. In his letter, Mr. Knutson asked the Commissioner to issue an advisory opinion regarding the classification of certain data that the District maintains.
A summary of the facts is as follows. To his letter, Mr. Knutson attached a copy of a letter sent to parents of a District student. Mr. Knutson wrote, "...the [District] received a request from Education Minnesota, which represents the teachers of the [District], for a copy of a letter regarding a certain teacher.
Mr. Knutson further wrote:
It should be noted that Minnesota courts have held that entire documents may be withheld under Chapter 13 when public and nonpublic information is so inextricably intertwined that segregation of the material would impose a significant financial burden and leave the remaining part of the document with little informational value. SeeNorthwest Publications, Inc. v. City of Bloomington, 499 N.W.2d 509 (Minn. Ct. App. 1993).
In his request for an opinion, Mr. Knutson asked the Commissioner to address the following issues:
Before proceeding, the Commissioner notes the following. The letter in question was sent to parents of a District student. It contains data about the student, the student's parents and an employee. Mr. Knutson wrote that Education Minnesota, the union representing Minnesota teachers, requested a copy of a letter "regarding a certain teacher." The Commissioner assumes the "certain teacher" is the employee who is the subject of some of the data in the letter.
Mr. Knutson did not provide any information as to whether Education Minnesota is entitled to private data about the employee. Education Minnesota would be able to gain access to private data about the employee if the employee had given his/her informed consent. Mr. Knutson provided no information leading the Commissioner to believe that the employee has consented to the release of private data. Education Minnesota also would be able to gain access to the data pursuant to section 13.43, subdivision 6, which authorizes dissemination of private data to labor organizations in certain circumstances. Mr. Knutson provided no information to suggest that any of those circumstances exist in the present situation. Therefore, the Commissioner assumes Education Minnesota made its request as a member of the public and is entitled only to public data in the letter.
In addition, based on the content of the letter, it appears the parents made a complaint against the employee. Mr. Knutson did not provide any information as to the status of the complaint. Pursuant to section 13.43, certain data may become public if the District takes any disciplinary action and there has been a final disposition (see section 13.43, subdivision 2(a)(5)). For purposes of this opinion, the Commissioner assumes no disciplinary action was taken and no final disposition has occurred.
Is the February 5, 2004, letter private or public information pursuant to Minnesota Statutes, Chapter 13, et seq.?
Data on individuals collected and maintained because an individual is or was an employee or volunteer are classified pursuant to section 13.43, personnel data. Subdivision 2 of section 13.43 lists the types of personnel data that are public. Subdivision 4 of section 13.43 classifies most other types of personnel data as private. "Data on individuals" is defined as all government data in which any individual is or can be identified as the subject of the data, unless the appearance of the name or other identifying data clearly can be demonstrated to be only incidental to the data. (See section 13.02, subdivision 5.)
Data about students are governed by both Minnesota and federal law. Section 13.32 classifies data relating to students (termed "educational data") and incorporates by reference much of the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), 20 U.S.C. §1232g, and its implementing Regulations, 34 C.F.R. Part 99. Subject to limited exceptions, educational data (termed "education records" under FERPA) are private and may not be released without consent.
One of the exceptions, under section 13.32, subdivision 5, is that any data a district chooses to designate as directory information pursuant to the provisions of FERPA are public. Under the federal regulations, "directory information" means "information contained in an education record of a student..." (See 34 C.F.R. section 99.3.)
Data about parents are private data on individuals but may be public if a District has designated them as directory information. See section 13.32, subdivisions 2(c) and 5.
The Commissioner has examined the letter in question. As stated above, it contains data about a student and the student's parents. Mr. Knutson provided no information indicating that the District has designated as public directory information any of the data of which the student or the parents are the subject. Therefore, the Commissioner assumes data in the letter about the student and his/her parents are private.
The letter also contains data about an employee. Most, if not all, of the data about the employee do not appear to be the type of data classified as public pursuant to section 13.43, subdivision 2. Those data, therefore, are private pursuant to subdivision 4 of section 13.43.
The Commissioner notes that the last paragraph of the letter, which discusses a School Board meeting, appears to be public.
Can the February 5, 2004, letter be released to Education Minnesota pursuant to Minnesota Statutes Chapter 13, et seq.?
Subject to the conclusions reached in Issue 1 above, and pursuant to Chapter 13, it appears Education Minnesota is entitled to gain access to any public data in the letter.
The Commissioner adds the following note. The Commissioner has not seen the actual data request made by Education Minnesota. Depending upon the request, it is possible that the fact the letter exists is private data. For example, if Education Minnesota made a data request for, "a letter relating to [named employee's] harassment of a student," and there are no public data relating to the fact that the nature of the complaint is harassment, the District, by confirming existence of the letter, would be releasing private data. The Commissioner does not have enough information to determine if a confirmation of the existence of the letter is a release of private data.
Based on the facts and information provided, my opinion on the issues that Mr. Knutson raised is as follows:
Brian J. Lamb
Dated: March 17, 2004