Public Information – What Are the Rights?
Under Education Law and the Public Officers Laws, schools are required to make school records available for inspection and copying. The Freedom of Information Law (FOIL), which is part of the Public Officers Law, allows public access to official documents and records.
There are no restrictions on who may access public records. Education Law provides that records, books, and papers of the office of any school officers are the property of the district and open for inspection.
A school record, as defined under the Public Law, is "any information kept, held, filed, produced or reproduced by, or for" the school. Records are further defined to be "in any form, including, but not limited to, reports, statements, examinations, memoranda, opinions, folders, files, books, manuals, pamphlets, forms, papers, designs, drawings, maps, photos, letters, microfilm, computer tapes, or disks, rules, regulations or codes" (Public Officers Law §86).
A school is not required to prepare a "record" that does not already exist in response to a request for information.
Records which are exempt from public disclosure are:
- Law enforcement documents and records
- Records that constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy
- Records that would hinder contract awards or collective bargaining
- Internal documents that are not statistics, instructions to staff, policies, or audits
- Information, if disclosed, would endanger life or safety
- Computer access codes
- Questions or answers to exams which have not yet been given
The right to public information under the Education Law and the Public Officers Law (The Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) is not to be confused with the State’s Employee Rights to Know Law. The provisions of FOIL pertain to public citizens having the right to information from public records. The "Employee Right to Know Law" applies to employees who have exposure to toxic or hazardous substances while in their workplace. Both laws provide access to information, however, the scope and intent of the laws differ.
Under FOIL schools are required to adopt procedures by which interested citizens may review school records. These procedures are to identify the times and places where records are available, the fees for copying records, and the name or title of the person responsible for providing records.
Requests for information must be in writing and must identify the record in sufficient detail for the request to be honored. Schools are to respond within five days of the request, by acknowledging the request and stating approximately when the request will be made or denied. (Public Officers Law 89(3)).
Citizens receiving a denial of information have 30 days to appeal to the person designated by the school board to receive and decide appeals. Within 10 days of the receipt of the appeal, the school must provide the information or a written factual explanation for the appeal denial.
Schools are further required to file each appeal and its outcome with the Committee or Open Court, 162 Washington Avenue, Albany, NY 12231.
Citizens dissatisfied with the school's final decision of denial may appeal the decision to the supreme court of the county in which they reside (Public Officers Law 89(4)).
FOIL is a process that is effective as a last resort. School officials are encouraged to extend full cooperation to work with employees, students, parents, and other interested citizens requesting information about school policies, practices, materials, and supplies. Experience teaches us that an enormous amount of time, effort, and money can be saved by cooperative listening, sharing, and working informally with all requests for information.