School board members in Oshkosh, Wis., have admitted deleting eMail correspondence with stakeholders—an action the state’s attorney general says violates Wisconsin’s open-records laws.

The news comes less than a year after eSchool News reported on a similar controversy in nearby Madison, Wis., raising the question whether school officials nationwide understand the significance of electronic records in the digital era.

The Associated Press (AP) on Nov. 11 reported that every member of the Oshkosh School Board had deleted eMail messages sent to them by constituents.

The problem was revealed when the Oshkosh Northwestern, a regional newspaper, made an open-records request for all eMail messages between the board and its constituents regarding district boundary and consolidation plans. When the paper received only 470 messages, it asked the state attorney general’s office whether eMail correspondence should be regarded as a matter of public record.

According to the AP report, the response from Attorney General Jim Doyle was unequivocally, yes. Failure to save all of the messages violated open-records laws, he said.

Several school board members told eSchool News they deleted correspondence without knowing its significance under the statute.

"I did not become aware of the fact that these eMails were public records until after the Oshkosh Northwestern requested we turn over all correspondence on the middle school consolidation plan to them," said board member Teresa Thiel. "Several times our policy and governance committee had discussions regarding what school board members needed to keep and for how long, and there were no definitive answers because this is really an untested area of the law."

Since the open-records request was made, school board members say a system has been put in place for each board member to store messages concerning district-related affairs.

"The board has just set up an archive mailbox at the district office for each board member. [For] every piece of eMail regarding school district business we receive or send … we copy our archive mailbox before we delete it from our computers," Stratz said.

The Oshkosh case resembles another controversy eSchool News reported on last year in the Madison Metropolitan School District. There, district officials came under fire after local Republican fund raiser Phillip Prange filed an open-records request for eMail correspondence between the school board and its constituents regarding the board’s decision to prohibit children from saying the Pledge of Allegiance in schools. Prange received only a few hundred messages and was told most of the correspondence had been deleted to free up space on the district’s information-laden computer system.

There is no statute in Wisconsin state law that specifically addresses eMail use by government officials. But as the two Wisconsin cases demonstrate, school officials should assume that eMail messages—and any other form of electronic correspondence, such as a bulletin-board forum on a school web site—are public records subject to the same open-records laws that apply to paper documents.

In Wisconsin, Thiel said some notices on committee hearings and other school- related business must be kept for seven years.

Although such statutes are state-specific, Edwin Darden, senior staff attorney for the National School Boards Association, said there are a number of precautions school officials nationwide can take to avoid similar legal missteps. These include:

• Develop a technology use policy that is reasonable and enforceable.

• Understand that all electronic correspondence, including eMail, is subject to a Freedom of Information Act request from outside parties.

• Instruct board members to keep personal communications seperate from school-related buisness.

• Set up an archival system for school-related eMail that is not unlike the process used for paper-based documents.

• Use bach-up discs or drives to store information for as long as you state requires under the law.

See these related links:

National School Boards Association http://www.nsba.org

Oshkosh Area School District http://www.wisinfo.com/ northwestern/index.shtml

Oshkosh Northwestern http://www.wisinfo.com