Northfield school board approves settlement on a student lawsuit; what can we know about it?

legal image This was on the School Board Agenda on Monday in the Superintendent’s Report: “Resolution To Approve Settlement of a Claim Pending Against the School District.”  The Board approved the settlement. I phoned all the school board members tonight and reached three of them. All said they couldn’t comment, that I’d have to talk to the District’s attorney. I can understand the need for secrecy during negotiations, and data privacy laws would prevent the release of the student’s name. But now that the suit is settled, (continued)

it seems a public body should reveal some basic details, eg, whether or not a monetary payout was made (and if so, how much), how much in attorney fees this cost the taxpayers, whether there was negligence of some kind on the part of staff or administrators, etc.

The District’s press release reads in part:

Now therefore, be it resolved….

1. That the settlement agreement and Release of all claims as presented to the school district be and hereby is approved;

2. That the school board chair and Clerk be and hereby are authorized to sign the settlement Agreement and Release of All Claims document on behalf of the school board; and

3. That the administration be and hereby is directed to cause an originally signed copy of the document to be mailed to the student’s attorney and that the other originally signed copy of the document be placed in the records of the school district.

Update 10:15 AM. Here’s the PDF of the Resolution Approving Settlement Agreement 32309.

35 thoughts on “Northfield school board approves settlement on a student lawsuit; what can we know about it?”

  1. Board member Ellen Iverson got back to me via email. (Thanks, Ellen!) She wrote, “I had a similar question from someone earlier today and had asked Dr. Richardson as to how to best answer these concerns.  He contacted the district’s counsel and they advised us on the following response.”

    District legal counsel has advised us that based on MN Statute 13.32 as well as MN Department of Administration opinions, this is the extent to which we may respond to the request for additional information.

    The District is very concerned that its response to inquiries from members of the public and the media not violate the rights of any person under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act.  Explaining the factors that have led the District to carefully limit its discussion of the claim and its settlement would make clear the basis for the District’s concerns.  But doing so would also go beyond what the courts and the Department of Administration have said that a public entity can reveal.  It would serve no purpose to answer these questions if doing so merely creates a cause of action against the District.

  2. Griff: Do you know who the attorney is?

    I am not aware of any basis for a public body to withhold information after the lawsuit is settled. To the extent that the lawsuit settlement requires that the school district not reveal the contents of the settlement, it is probably unenforceable against the school district.

    Further, if the school board members cannot comment, it is incumbent upon the attorney to present a statement for public dissemination so individual members don’t have to explain.

    1. A caveat: If the settlement deals only with the student’s educational data, it cannot be revealed. I don’t know why the school board would have to be involved in such a settlement.

  3. Looks like “educational data” is very broadly defined in M.S. 13.32. Educational data is, essentially, all information maintained by the school.

    Looks like this information is “not public data” as defined by M.S. 13.02 subd. 8(a).

    So, we’ll know nothing, which is as it should be. The school may even be liable for releasing any information about this settlement, whatever it is.

    Ms. Iverson references “MN Department of Administrative” opinions, but I bet it’s an advisory opinion the school is referring to. These can be searched here.

    It’s a great resource for understanding Data Practices law. There’s a good index for searching for advisory opinions.

    Here is the opinion which appears to be most on point.

    The legal analysis from this opinion is essentially that the terms of a settlement agreement are private educational data to the extent that the identity of the parent/child involved could be determined. But the dollar value of the settlement is public if the identity of the parent/student cannot be determined from the monetary amount of the settlement alone.

  4. I’m not understanding something, here. Couldn’t the district prepare a summary statement without names of specifics such as:

    On (date) the NPS and an individual family settled a claim against the district alleging (e.g., violation of data privacy laws; discrimination, negligence or whatever the claim is) in the amount of $x thousand dollars. Due to the nature of data privacy laws, no further information on the details of the case will be released?

    I don’t see how that in any way violates the student’s or family’s privacy, but it does let the taxpayers, whose money is being taken out of the fund to educate the other kids, see how their money is being spent. What am I missing?

  5. I got this email from Supt. Chris Richardson:

    Dear Griff,
    I have received your request for all information related to the settlement agreement.  No other data request form is required for the District to provide you with all of the information our legal counsel believes we can legally provide.  The information that was provided to you by Board Member Ellen Iverson is the extent of the information on this matter that our legal counsel, Paul Ratwik of Ratwik, Roszak & Maloney, has advised us that we may disclose.  That statement is repeated below:

     

    “District legal counsel has advised us that based on MN Statute 13.32 as well as MN Department of Administration opinions, this is the extent to which we may respond to the request for additional information.

    The District is very concerned that its response to inquiries from members of the public and the media not violate the rights of any person under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act.  Explaining the factors that have led the District to carefully limit its discussion of the claim and its settlement would make clear the basis for the District’s concerns.  But doing so would also go beyond what the courts and the Department of Administration have said that a public entity can reveal.  It would serve no purpose to answer these questions if doing so merely creates a cause of action against the District.”

     I am also enclosing the settlement resolution which is public information and was provided to the Northfield News in the table file on Monday evening.

    If you believe that the school district is required to disclose additional information, please review MN Statute 13.072, which details the process that you may use to request a ruling from the Department of Administration concerning the application of the Government Data Practices Act in this situation.

     

    Respectfully,

     

    L. Chris Richardson, Ph.D.

    Superintendent

  6. This seems to me to be the kind of information the district might likely send to the newly revitalized “Key Communicator” network.

  7. Britt: It would seem that the District not only can, but may have an obligation to reveal the nature of the lawsuit.

    In fact, the Administration committed a data privacy violation if it told the Board members any educational data.

    I believe that the Board members are free to discuss anyting that they are told by the Administration unless the Administration provided educational data to them. In that event, they cannot disclose what should not have been disclosed; but they can disclose anything else.

    In this case, there is probably a conflict of interest between the Administration and the School Board. It appears that Attorney Ratwick has taken the very cautious approach of saying that they won’t release the information unless they are ordered to do so.

    1. Britt: It would seem that the District
      not only can, but may have an
      obligation to reveal the nature of the
      lawsuit

      Why?

    2. Britt: School Board officials are public officials. They should not be allowed to spend money or settle any lawsuits without disclosing the basis for the vote.

      To the extent that the information is privileged, how can it be revealed to public officials? The officials’ responsibility is to their clients – the voters. I don’t think that they are bound to keep any confidence that they learn in their public office.

    3. I don’t see how they have an obligation to reveal the nature of the litigation. It seems the nature of the litigation is private, not public data.

      So, I disagree that “the District…may have an obligation to reveal the nature of the lawsuit.” But chapter 13 leads me to believe that the amount of the settlement is public data subject to disclosure.

    4. Britt: As I read the law, the School District cannot reveal any data that would likely result in identification of the student or the student’s educational data.

      Anything that the School Board was told should be information available to the public. Otherwise, how can we judge the decision-making process?

  8. David,

    What exactly is the conflict of interest between the Administration and the School Board?

    Also, if attorney Ratwick were to be ordered to release info, who would it be to do the ordering?

  9. Does it matter if the District’s insurance company was involved in this, for example, if they insisted on a settlement that they’d cover? Do we as taxpayers have a right to know if that was the case?

  10. Does the public have a right to know the extent to which anyone employed by the District screwed up?

    If the silence on the negotiated agreement is not to protect the student’s privacy, but rather to prevent the public from knowing which staff did what, that would seem to put the Board in bind, ie, do we board members ‘protect’ our staff or do we ‘protect’ the public/the children from staff who’ve done wrong/made a mistake?

  11. Griff, you wrote

    If the silence on the negotiated agreement is not to protect the student’s privacy, but rather to prevent the public from knowing which staff did what, that would seem to put the Board in bind, ie, do we board members ‘protect’ our staff or do we ‘protect’ the public/the children from staff who’ve done wrong/made a mistake?

    And I absolutely agree that’s the crux of the issue here. I don’t have a need to know the NAME of the staff member(s), but I do think the district owes the public more in the way of accountability. I have posted many years ago on my experience with the middle school principal (the last one, not the current one) and how valid parental complaints about staff seemed to be brushed aside, such that the same propblems recurred year after year. Many other parents wrote in with similar stories. Northfield Public
    Schools, at least at the secondary level (my experience has been much more positive at Bridgewater–through two different principals) , seem to be set up to protect staff at the expense of kids. Unfortunately, I’ve had even more numerous problems with this issue with the current high school principal. Teachers who screw up are protected, kids who are victims are ignored.
    Some of these issues have been very serious ones as well–with the same lack of response.

    The district seems to be drifting more every day to a staff-centric “protect the asses of the staff” operating philosophy.

  12. Just because a settlement was reached doesn’t mean that anyone did anything “wrong” or that the district is admitting to any liability.

    (Kind of like how we paid Roder off, for no reason, for no liabilities. Just gave him a bonus for not being a criminal, and to escape his baseless threat of litigation.)

    1. Well you know that if you “assume” you risk making an ass out of you and….oh wait, I don’t want to be a part of this.

  13. Britt: Public bodies can’t reach settlements non-public decisions. Period. I am not aware of any law that allows or permits a public official to withhold information discovered in the course of his or her duties. (Unless you are in the Bush Administration.)

    1. David : we need to celebrate! we agree on something!

      ( But a thread drift comment would apply to Britt’s #15 … school district, Roder, council voting blocs, lack of info to citizens who inquire about costs so far of payments to Roder’s attorney … )

      Why do institutions which are supposed to be governed by the citizens, for the common good, become usurped by a power structure which does not see itself as representative? … and all the while speaking about “citizen engagement” ?

  14. Tony, there have never been any allegations of criminal wrongdoing with this lawsuit, far as I know, so I don’t think there’s any reason for anyone to ‘assume the worst.’

    1. Griff,

      If there wasn’t any criminal wrongdoing, what was the settlement for?

      Should I stop by for my check after work today?

  15. Kathy and Kiffi, you commented/wondered about nature of the district/public institutions being staff-centric, non-representative.

    They can’t help it, so don’t be too mad at them.

    Ted Kolderie (Carleton grad and widely considered the “father of charter schools”) summed it up nicely long ago in his 1990 report, Beyond Choice to New Public Schools: Withdrawing the Exclusive Franchise in Public Education:

    … the school districts’ exclusive monopoly on public education is the heart of the problem. This is what makes local school boards more responsive to the interests of the adults in the education system — administrators and teachers — than to children, who are compelled by law to attend school…

    The local school board today is caught in a fundamental conflict of interest. It is trying to represent the parents and the public, to whom it promises the best possible education for the kids. But it also sits as the board of the only teaching business in town. This is a self-dealing arrangement, in which the board’s role as a producer of educational goods tends to dominate. Almost inevitably the board spends more of its time worrying about its staff (who can leave) than about its students (who cannot).

    Lots has changed since 1990, now that we have charter schools, open enrollment, and PSEO. But the problem still exists.

    1. Look … it’s simple; The ‘positioning’ of the adults is all wrong.
      The school district, administration and teachers and auxiliary staff, AND the parents, should all stand together BEHIND the student, working together positively to propel that student forward in the educational process.

      There is NO room, in my mind, for adults to be on adversarial/opposite sides of a ‘line’, with the student in the middle.

  16. May I recommend to all “Life Without Lawyers – Liberating America from too much law” by Philip K Howard, published 2009 by W.W Norton & Co. Brilliant; and relevant to this debate especially as we all remain clueless as usual about who was supposed to have done what to whom and at what cost to the taxpayer and the education system such as it is.

    1. And as AP said a while back… everyone will continue to think , or even believe, the ‘worst’ as long as the powers to be want everyone to be ‘clueless’, as you said , Norman.
      There’s only one way to win on the suppression of information war……NEVER let it die!

  17. Tony, lots of lawsuits (and subsequent settlements) don’t involve criminal behavior. Eg, we were sued by Mendota Homes and settled.

    Crime/criminal usually means a felony: “violation of a law in which there is injury to the public or a member of the public and a term in jail or prison, and/or a fine as possible penalties”

    So again, in this case, there’s absolutely NO indication that anyone employed by the District did anything criminal.

  18. Nfld News managing editor Suzy Rook has detailed the paper’s attempts to get information from the district on this settlement: Challenges of the data privacy laws.

    The following day we again asked for information, this time specifics on the settlement agreement: what, if anything was paid to the student, whether district employees were negligent or involved in any wrongdoing and if the district was changing policies and procedures to ensure such a violation didn’t recur.

    Keeping that information confidential, according to Richardson, ensures the district isn’t sued again.

    It just seems odd that because we know the student’s identity, we’re prevented from getting not only what the impetus of the suit was, but what exactly the board did to make the claim go away.

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