JUST HOW PERSONAL ARE PUBLIC SECTOR PERSONNEL FILES ANYWAY?
Teachers and administrators well know that personal information about themselves is regularly acquired by school districts and sequestered in file cabinets or desk drawers within the environs of the superintendent’s office. Letters, memos, and other papers, including emails and faxes, may be stored in these “confidential” files and potentially be utilized in decision-making concerning a teacher’s or principal’s promotion, demotion or other discipline, including termination.
It is also widely accepted that any document placed in a board of education or municipal employee’s personnel file must first have been sent or copied to the employee and have the notation “personnel file” marked on it; that the employee has the right to challenge any statements that s/he disagrees with or at least demand that an exculpatory or explanatory account be attached. Moreover, if the employer agrees, or a grievance arbitrator so orders, the language found to be inaccurate or untrue may be edited out (expunged), or the document itself simply be destroyed.
Unfortunately, none of these understandings is correct under Connecticut law as to those who work for towns, boards of education or the State government, whether they are certified or non-certified employees. The contents of one’s personnel file need not be stored in a certain way or place. “Personnel file” is really a misnomer for an entire class of information, wherever kept geographically by a public agency, including a board of education, relating to the “public’s business,” either prepared for or received by the public agency. Expunging (erasing, removing, blotting or striking out) or destroying such public records, except in accordance with the strict retention requirements of the Public Records Administrator, is a class A misdemeanor and could get the unwitting perpetrator up to one (1) year in prison and/or a $2,000 fine. Municipalities may destroy records only after receiving the signed approval form from the Office of the Public Records Administrator. The minimum retention periods established, excerpts of which are set forth below, vary according to the nature of the document. However, there is no obligation of a town or board of education to destroy them at all, or any prohibition against keeping them for longer periods of time than minimally required under the schedule.
In point of fact, most personal information contained in a public sector employee’s personnel file is “impersonal” insofar as its potential disclosure to the external world is concerned. “Separation and release agreements,” which characteristically involve a resignation by the employee in return for the employer not pursuing termination, continuing salary and benefits for a certain period of time, and supplying a virtuous letter of recommendation; “last chance agreements,” which allows the employee one last opportunity to remain in employment, as long as s/he does not repeat a previously noted or similarly unacceptable act, in return for which the employee waives his/her rights to challenge future discipline; complaints about teachers by parents and records of personal misconduct (but not erased criminal convictions or ethics complaints) must all be disclosed if requested by any person or entity, including the local newspaper.