A&A: Using Public Records Act to find a school executives’ salaries

Q: I am a student looking to improve my understanding of executive compensation at my school and other schools in our region. When I contact the other schools, I cannot obtain hard information. The school administrations simply ignore my emails. I can usually get access to salary schedules, which are a framework for determining compensation, but it’s not a hard number,”this person made this much in this year.” What’s the best way to obtain information on how much a school’s executives are paid?

A: The Public Records Act, Govt. Code section 6250 et seq., generally requires that state and local agencies must give members of the public access to or copies of the agency’s records upon request.

Note that the Act does not require that the agency to answer questions or, as a general matter, extract information from paper records. So, as a preliminary matter, you should make sure you are always requesting “records that show ____,” rather than just asking the agency to answer your question.

The law is subject to numerous exceptions. That is, there are numerous categories of records that an agency may choose to not make public. Among these exceptions is the one for “personnel files” found in Govt. Code section 6254(c).

Records in the personnel files of governmental employees may be withheld if the disclosure of the record would constitute an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” To determine whether an invasion of privacy will be “unwarranted,” a court will balance the public’s interest in the record against the individual’s privacy interest in keeping the records secret.

The California Supreme considered the personnel files exception as it applies to public employee salary information in IFPTE v. Superior Court, 42 Cal. 4th 319 (2007).

In that case, the Court acknowledged that individuals generally have a very strong privacy interest in their personal financial information. But the Court further found that for public employees this privacy interest is far weaker than for privately employed individuals. Counterbalanced against this weakened privacy interest is public’s interest in knowing how governmental funds are spent.

The Court thus held that the personnel file exemption could not be claimed for the request before it, in which a newspaper sought the salary information for all county employees earning over $100,000 a year. The case may not require that the salary for every single public employee be disclosed.

The Court left open the possibility that the privacy interests of a low-paid, low-level government employee might outweigh the public’s interest in the information.

So, as a general matter, the more significant the employee’s duties and the higher the salary the more likely the records of that person’s salary will be public records. It would seem, under these standards, that records indicating the salaries of school executives would be public records.

You may want to show the agency’s the IFPTE decision as support for your records request.

Bryan Cave LLP is general counsel for the First Amendment Coalition and responds to FAC hotline inquiries. In responding to inquiries, we can give general information regarding open government and freedom of speech issues but cannot provide specific legal advice or representations.