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Ohio Supreme Court says Springfield must release student data

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the Springfield City School District must release student directory data after a Columbus advocacy group alleged the district used its records policies to deny information to organizations it opposed.

The justices ruled former Springfield Superintendent David Estrop abused his discretion when he refused to release records that included student names and addresses to School Choice Ohio. The information falls within limitations specified in a consent form sent to parents, the justices ruled, and it wouldn’t violate the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

“Because School Choice fits within limitations specified in Springfield’s consent form and because the superintendent cannot create FERPA prohibitions by making post-consent discretionary decisions, disclosure of Springfield’s student directory information to School Choice would not be prohibited,” Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger wrote in the majority opinion.

>>Related: Supreme Court hears Springfield Schools’ public records case

>>More coverage: Springfield identities at center of legal fight

The court’s ruling will send a message to districts statewide, said Kaleigh Lemaster, executive director of School Choice Ohio.

“This is a major victory for the families who are denied potentially life-changing information because of the abuse of discretion of one superintendent,” Lemaster said. “We decided to take on the time and expense of this case because we believe strongly that parents deserve this information so they can make the best choice for their children’s education.”

School Choice Ohio regularly seeks directory information, including student names and addresses, she said. The nonprofit then sends information to parents about vouchers students in low-performing schools can use to attend private schools.

But Springfield district leaders had raised concerns that the mailings were misleading

“The Board of Education adopted our current student privacy policy with the primary goal of giving parents more options in protecting their child’s information and to protect students and families from receiving false and misleading information,” said Kim Fish, a spokeswoman for the district. “Our policy allows the superintendent to decide who gets student information, if their parent consents. The Supreme Court ruled the superintendent cannot have that discretion, and that once we have parental consent for any disclosure, we have to give student information out even if we believe the organization is not acting in the best interests of our students.”

In 2014, School Choice Ohio filed a public records request for Springfield student names, addresses, parent telephone numbers and other contact information. The district denied that request, citing FERPA. It sent student names and addresses and said the remaining information wasn’t directory information that could be released.

District officials changed their records policy in 2013, saying no student information would be designated as directory information. Directory information can include details such as a student’s name, address and phone number, and is the only student data that’s exempt from federal privacy laws and considered a public record.

Instead, district officials send out a consent form, giving parents the option whether to release information about their student to school partners or not.

The justices also denied the School Choice Ohio’s request that the district change its student privacy policies. The court also awarded School Choice Ohio $1,000 in damages, as well as court costs and attorney fees.

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