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School performance data public record, must be disclosed, AG says

The Arizona Department of Education released school letter grades today, despite earlier attempts to keep them secret until a later date.

The release of the data came at the advice of the Arizona Attorney General’s Office.

The Board of Education put out a press release in September saying that schools would receive their grades near the end of September, but the grades would be “embargoed” and kept confidential until October 9. An embargo is a media term for restricting the use of information until an agreed upon time.

The Arizona Capitol Times requested all schools’ letter grades from both the department and the board, but had been unable to access them.

Today, after the publication of a Capitol Times story about the embargo, the department sent a database of the grades to the newspaper.

Still, the whole idea of an “embargo” on public information doesn’t fly under public records laws, First Amendment attorney Dan Barr said.

Dan Barr

Dan Barr

“Public bodies don’t get to say, I won’t comply with statutes today, but I will next week,” he said.

A reporter from the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting was also forcibly removed on Thursday from the department after requesting to inspect the records in person.

The new A-F grading system, years in the making, plays into some aspects of state funding, and it also affects parents’ choices on where to send their kids.

In an email to the Capitol Times, department spokesman Dan Godzich wrote that he was “attempting to respect the wishes of the State Board of Education” by not releasing the public records until the embargo date, Oct. 9.

“However, upon conferring with counsel at the State Attorney General’s Office, it has been determined that the A-F grade data base, even though still a work-in-progress, should be treated as a public record,” Godzich wrote.

He sent a database of the A-F grades, which he claimed “did not exist until today.” The database file is still being worked on and will be different than the one that will be publicly released on Monday.

“We have not had time to verify the file’s accuracy,” Godzich wrote.

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