The Madison School District failed to follow state law when it denied the Wisconsin State Journal access to more than 1,000 sick notes submitted by teachers who didn't show up for work in February, according to a lawsuit filed by the newspaper Thursday.
The lawsuit, filed in Dane County District Court, asks the court to force the district to release the notes under the state's open records law, which requires government agencies to release public documents in most circumstances.
The lawsuit says the sick notes are public records because the public has a special interest in knowing how governments discipline employees, who are ultimately responsible to the public.
"We can't know if things were dealt with appropriately if we can't see the underlying documents on which decisions were made," said April Rockstead Barker, the newspaper's lawyer.
Dylan Pauly, a School District lawyer, declined comment until she had a chance to review the lawsuit.
Board member Arlene Silveria said she expects the school district to fight the lawsuit. Board member Lucy Mathiak said, "I find it offensive and it speaks volumes about the priorities of the paper — more interested in digging out crap about our staff than figuring out how the district is or is not functioning."
Schools in Madison were closed for four days in February as teachers coordinated a sick-out to attend protests of Gov. Scott Walker's proposed curtailing of collective bargaining for public employees.
The district required teachers who were absent on Feb. 16-18 and 21 to submit documentation from a doctor if they were legitimately sick. Those who didn't were docked pay.
Of the 1,769 teachers who took one or more days off without an excuse, 84 submitted sick notes the district deemed "fraudulent" because they appeared to be handed out by doctors at the Capitol protests. Of those, 38 received suspensions because they didn't rescind the fraudulent notes when given the chance.
District officials said the majority of notes were not investigated and deemed valid because they came from doctor's offices.
Last month the district denied the State Journal's request for the notes. It also denied a revised request seeking the notes without the teachers' names.
Pauly said maintaining the confidentiality of sensitive medical information outweighed the public interest in disclosure.
"Furthermore, (release would have) a chilling effect on employees' willingness to provide meaningful, accurate information regarding personal illnesses and/or medical conditions," Pauly wrote. "Such hesitancy could greatly impede the district's ability to fairly and appropriately manage its employees, which, in turn, would impede the district's ability to perform its most important and legitimate public function — educating students."
The lawsuit says past court cases have established that public employees should have a lower expectation of privacy regarding employment records.
"Public employers cannot refuse to produce records citing concerns about employer-employee relations as though they were private employers," the lawsuit says.