Access to public records is a cornerstone of good government, and one that has increasingly been eroded in Ohio. Shielding the names of public-school teachers hired as replacements during a strike would be another blow to the state’s once-exemplary openness. It also would deny taxpayers, parents and the press the right to know who is being paid with public funds to teach Ohio’s children.
A case before the Ohio Supreme Court should decide this issue. The suit centers on the Strongsville school system in northeastern Ohio, which refused to release the names of 372 substitute teachers when these names were requested by David Quolke, president of Cleveland Teachers Union Local 279.
Quolke sued when Strongsville declined, citing concerns for the safety of the replacement teachers in the midst of a contentious teachers’ strike. The 8th Ohio District Court of Appeals in Cuyahoga County sided with Quolke, and the school district appealed the decision to the Supreme Court.
The Ohio Coalition for Open Government and others have joined in a friend-of-the-court filing, asking the court to require release of the records.
“Such a vast expansion of the ‘privacy’ exemption … would deal a crushing blow to Ohioans’ right to access information pertinent to issues of public importance,” wrote lawyers Fred Gittes and David Marburger.
This is a case where many might sympathize with the district and the substitute teachers, who were taunted by picketing strikers.
In at least one case, a substitute’s car windshield was smashed.
But if officials are allowed to pick and choose when they release public records based on who’s asking and other factors — or worse yet, if they establish that such records always are shielded — that does lasting harm to open, accountable government.
Creating another new permanent class of people who are exempted from public-records laws is not a good remedy for this situation. Enforcing existing laws against intimidation, vandalism and assault is the proper response to such concerns.
And whenever parts of the government are closed to public scrutiny, regardless of the rationale, those inaccessible areas are where corruption can take root.
When Ohio’s original sunshine law was passed a half-century ago, it was considered a model for other states. The only things exempted were medical records; every other document relating to entities funded by and employees paid with taxpayer money was considered an open record.
Over the years, that openness has been eroded. One of the favorite rationales is that allowing public access to information about public employees puts them at risk.
This claim is accepted by lawmakers and judges with no substantial evidence of danger.
The result has been an ever-growing list of government workers who are exempted from open-records rules, including police officers, firefighters, prosecuting attorneys, youth-services workers and emergency-medical technicians.
But shielding information about them also makes it harder to keep tabs on their performance.
With each exemption, it gets easier for bad behavior to occur and harder for the public to find out.