On Thursday, the Ohio Supreme Court issued a ruling in State ex rel. School Choice Ohio, Inc. v. Cincinnati Pub. School Dist. [Cincinnati Public School District was dismissed as a respondent in this case when it entered into a settlement agreement with SCO.]

In October 2013, School Choice Ohio (SCO) submitted a public records request to Springfield City School District, requesting:

  1. Student’s and parent’s/guardian’s name,
  2. Parent’s/guardian's complete address and email address,
  3. Parent’s/guardian’s telephone contact information,
  4. Student’s grad level for the 2013-14 school year, and
  5. Student’s school building for the 2013-14 school year.

Prior to receipt of this request, Springfield revised its student records policy.  In that policy, Springfield provided parents of current students with a form entitled “Consent for Disclosure of Student Information for Superintendent Approved Purposes.”  The consent form listed nine categories of information, called “personally identifiable information,” that could be disclosed if parents consented. 

Once the consent form was signed, Springfield could release personally identifiable student information “for purposes approved by the Superintendent or his designee.”  The two categories of approved purposes were:

  1. School-directed events or activities, such as yearbook publication; and
  2. Educational, health, service, or other non-profit programs which may provide a benefit to the students of the Springfield City School District and that were directed by community leaders, community organizations, and school-related organizations approved by the Superintendent as partnering organizations. 

Based on the revised policy, Springfield denied SCO’s request for student records.  Springfield argued that none of the student records were designated as directory information in its policy.  Therefore, the Family Educational Right to Privacy Act (FERPA) and RC 3319.321 prohibited releasing the records, which were not “public records” subject to RC 149.43

The Court concluded that, because both FERPA and RC 3319.321 permit the release of student “directory information,” some of the information SCO sought was within the category of “public records.”  The Court ordered Springfield to give SCO the records it had requested for those students whose parents had affirmatively consented to the release of the information.  The Court did not accept Springfield’s argument that, because its policy did not classify any of the records as directory information, the information was protected unless release was for a purpose approved by the Superintendent. 

The decision states:  "Allowing the superintendent to make discretionary limitations after consent has been given does not limit the scope of parental consent. ... Because School Choice fits within the limitations specified in Springfield's consent form and because the superintendent cannot create a FERPA prohibition by making post-consent discretionary decisions, disclosure of Springfield's student-directory information to School Choice would not be prohibited by FERPA.”

However, the Court denied SCO’s request to compel Springfield to amend its student-information policy so that the policy required the disclosure of requested information to SCO.  This decision was consistent with the position that school districts “possess the authority to enact policies that, within their sound discretion, are for the betterment of their own district[s],” as argued by the OSBA Legal Assistance Fund in an amici curiae brief filed on behalf of OSBA, OASBO, and BASA. 

Finally, the Court awarded reasonable attorney fees because it found that Springfield did not provide a timely affirmative or negative response to SCO’s October 2013 public records request, making SCO entitled to a mandatory award of attorney fees.  The Court also declined to exercise its discretion to reduce attorney fees.  

Posted by Jennifer Hardin on 7/24/2016