An immense public records request from a Wyoming state senator has rattled state school officials, who have cited privacy concerns, though they acknowledge they have to comply with the bulk of the request.
Rock Springs Republican Sen. Tom James sent a public records request to all state agencies, including the Wyoming Department of Education, asking for the names, positions and salaries of all state employees.
He told the Casper Star-Tribune earlier this month that the request was made to help him understand the state budget.
“I’m just trying to figure it all out,” he told the Star-Tribune. “This is my first budget session, and I just want to do the best I can.”
But the breadth of James’ records request has some district officials, including those in Teton County, worried that releasing such detailed information could put some teachers in physical danger. They also said that having so much personal information out for the public could facilitate invasions of privacy like identity theft.
News&Guide calls to James were not returned by press time.
School districts are required to publish district employee positions and salaries at the beginning of each school year in the paper of record, which in Teton County is the News&Guide.
“All school districts have to publish title and salary info,” Teton County School District No. 1 information coordinator Charlotte Reynolds said.
But James is requesting individual names for each position in addition to titles.
“This does go beyond normal practice,” Reynolds said.
In light of privacy concerns, the Wyoming Department of Education asked school districts to share any employees who have valid reasons, such as a protective order, that would keep their names from being included in the records.
State Superintendent Jillian Balow told James in an email sent Thursday that she needed more time to fulfill the request because of the concerns.
State statute requires that records requests be filled within 30 days, and the original deadline was Dec. 27, but Balow told James that she needed until Jan. 15.
“Since these employees are hired and managed by locally elected school boards and they are not State of Wyoming employees,” she wrote, “we need more information from districts and a process for withholding those names from our production.”
James took issue with Balow’s request for extension, which was sent eight days before the deadline.
“Waiting until the day before a holiday week is unacceptable,” he replied. “You have had ample, and sufficient time to redact the names of those with legitimate safety issues.”
He went on to write that if school districts have employees who have safety concerns, whoever is intent on harming the teachers could simply find the name through another source. He said that having those employees could present a danger to students.
“Should we be more concerned that there are individuals with this potential of violence being perpetrated on them working in such close proximity to our children on a regular basis?” he wrote, “(Which in my mind presents an immediate, clear, and present danger to our children as collateral damage to whatever violence an individual would want to carry out on a person “hiding” in our school system.)
“I say we should be more concerned with protecting our children than protecting the Teachers, Staff, or Administrators whose presence alone presents a very real risk of potential violence on our children.”
He went on to say he was denying Balow’s request for an extension, saying she had waited until the last minute to ask for the extension.
Reynolds said Balow was meeting with superintendents from districts around the state, including Teton County Superintendent Gillian Chapman, to develop a plan to fulfill the request.
“Districts are submitting exceptions, for any staff with security and safety concerns,” she said. “We forwarded one on to the Department of Education.”
The state Education Department has until Dec. 27 to fulfill the request, and even then districts may not know what James plans to do with the information, if anything. Officials can’t ask why someone is making a request, and James hasn’t indicated what he needs the information for, other than telling the Star-Tribune that he wanted to understand the pay gap between educators and administrators.
That uncertainty, particularly in not knowing whether James will publish the information, makes Reynolds a bit wary.
“He has an absolute right to ask, but when I receive a PR request from a media outlet I have a sense of the purpose, that it will be in media coverage,” she said. “That I’m generally aware of what happens with that information.
“In this case we don’t know how he plans on using it.”