New Milford Resident Wins FOI Ruling Against Superintendent, Unions

A Freedom of Information Commission hearing officer recommended Monday in a draft decision that the New Milford school system make teacher evaluation ratings public.

John Spatola, a former member of the New Milford Board of Education, brought a complaint seeking the ratings. Although individual teacher ratings are exempt from disclosure, Spatola’s complaint and the draft decision would set a precedent for aggregate information about teacher performance. JeanAnn Paddyfote, the New Milford superintendent at the time, refused to comply with Spatola’s request for the information prompting the complaint.

The New Milford Teachers’ Association and the statewide Connecticut Education Association intervened to keep information about teacher performance secret.

Hearing Officer Lisa Fein Siegel said in her proposed ruling that although individual teacher performance evaluations are protected by law, the aggregate data can be made public.

The complaint stemmed from Spatola’s June 15, 2015 request for the data obtained by provided to the State Department of Education regarding teacher performance.

“Two-thirds of the budget was teacher salaries,” Spatola said. “We’re paying substantial salaries so I wanted to know how our schools are actually doing.” Paddyfote refused to make the teacher evaluation numbers public and would only allow them to be seen as part of an executive session.

Paddyfote claimed that state law prevented her from disclosing data reported to the state. According to the state statute, “any records maintained or kept on file by the Department of Education or any local or regional board of education that are records of teacher performance and evaluation shall not be deemed to be public records and shall not be subject” to public disclosure.

However, the data Spatola requested did not involve individual teachers. Instead, it was a summary report on the numbers of teachers that received final grades of “Exemplary,” “Proficient,” “Developing,” or “Below Standard.” Since those findings did not disclose any identifying information, Siegel said the commission should rule it is public information.

Spatola said that he wanted the data to find out whether or not New Milford teachers required additional training in particular fields. The CEA said the ratings should not be used “to shame individual educators or school districts.”

“John’s complaint was never about an attack on the system, it was an effort to improve the system,” said  Peter C. Bowman, an attorney with Pavano Dombrowski who represents Spatola.

Spatola says that along with judging the performance of the school system, the information could also be used to change evaluation methods. He notes that often administrators with little teaching experience are judging full-time teachers in subjects outside the evaluator’s realm of expertise. “What if we have a fourth grade teacher evaluating a high school calculus teacher? How would they know about teaching that subject matter?”

Teacher performance ratings have been a hot button issue for many teachers’ unions and has resulted in strikes in Chicago. In February of 2016, the state of Connecticut released similar aggregate teacher evaluation data to the public. 98.4 percent of the teachers received either “exemplary” or “proficient” in their evaluations.

The Freedom of Information Commission will take up the draft decision at its April 27 meeting. “At this point, based on our arguments and the hearing officer’s recommendation, it is our hope they will approve,” Bowman said. “I think the state recognizes that this is not specific to individual teachers.”

Since making his request and complaint, Spatola resigned from the board of education.

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