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Bill to remove principals’ evaluations from public review draws fire

Advocates for government transparency are objecting to language in an education bill that would prevent the public from reviewing school principals’ performance appraisals.

At present, whether the public has access to those performance appraisals depends largely on the policies of individual school districts.

But HB 2823, authored by Rep. Doris Goodale, R-Kingman, would specifically exempt principals’ evaluations from public disclosure. The language is part of a larger bill addressing teacher and principal performance appraisals and incentives.

“The public has a great interest in how our schools are doing,” said David Cuillier, interim director of the University of Arizona School of Journalism and chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Freedom of Information Committee.

“Every group out there thinks their group is special and deserves an exemption,” said Dan Barr, a Phoenix attorney who represents media organizations. “To shield from public view the performance reviews of public school principals doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Based on concerns raised about principals’ evaluations, Goodale said she will review that language with attorneys to make sure the bill doesn’t overstep current law. She didn’t respond directly to questions about the intent of the language other than to say the goal wasn’t interfering with the public’s right to know.

“We never intended to change or put obstacles to what is the current process of releasing public documents,” Goodale said.

The bill won a 6-3 endorsement Monday from the House Education Committee, which Goodale chairs, sending it to the full House by way of the Rules Committee.

Attorney Chris Moeser, whose firm represents Phoenix Newspapers Inc., told the panel that, while current law considers teachers’ evaluations private, the evaluations of principals are a different matter because of their responsibilities.

“The only way the public can know what’s going on in a school is to look at the documents – the performance evaluations, the other records that show how a school is performing,” Moeser said.

Under the bill, principal evaluations would only be released to the reviewed principal and to district employees responsible for personnel matters and contracts. They also could be introduced in court action between a governing board and principal.

Otherwise, “copies of the evaluation report and performance classification of a principal retained by the governing board are confidential, do not constitute a public record and shall not be released…,” the bill reads.

Cuillier said lawmakers usually see attempts to block public access to documents as hindering open government.

“Those kinds of records have traditionally been kept open, and for good reason,” he said.

Goodale said no one raised objections to principal evaluations being kept private until the day before Monday’s hearing and said in casting her vote in favor she would address the “transparency issues.”

“There was no intent to disallow the evaluations,” she said. “We do believe in transparency.”

HB 2823 provisions:

HB 2823, authored by Rep. Doris Goodale, R-Kingman, is a broad bill dealing with hiring, assessing and rewarding teachers and principals. Here are some of its provisions:

• Would require the State Board of Education to adopt a scale of performance classifications for teachers and principals and require school districts and charter schools to apply those classifications for reviews by the 2013-2014 school year.
• Would allow principals and teachers who achieve the highest performance classification to receive multiyear contracts not exceeding three years and would allow them to be eligible for performance incentives for working at schools classified as D or F under state’s new grade-based system for evaluating schools.
• Would instruct teachers to make student learning the primary focus of their professional time.

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