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Moorpark School Board to Seek Legal Advice on Closed Files : Education: Supt. Tom Duffy hasn't released advisory panel applications because he regards them as confidential personnel records.

January 14, 1994|JAMES MAIELLA JR. | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Moorpark school board will seek legal advice on whether to publicly release applications used to appoint members of an advisory committee in response to a yearlong battle by critics of the group to obtain the documents.

"At this point I want to see them as a matter of curiosity," said Moorpark resident Eloise Brown. More than anything else, Brown said she wanted the school board "to observe the requirements of public documents. I want them to do their business in public."

Brown and other residents have been fighting to see the documents since 26 parents, teachers, administrators and residents were chosen from among 57 applicants in September, 1992, to serve on the Committee for Effective Schools. The group was asked to find ways to improve Moorpark's elementary schools.

Shortly after the group was seated, critics alleged that many of its members had financial or other ties to the district that would prevent them from offering any real criticism.

School officials said the applications, which contain committee members' educational philosophies and observations on the state of the district, have been kept confidential by Supt. Tom Duffy, who has ruled that the documents are confidential personnel records.

"They are being looked at as personnel documents," said Frank DePasquale, assistant superintendent for instruction. "In other words, our superintendent believes that they would come under the laws that govern personnel and that the information would be confidential."

The school board voted 4 to 1 Tuesday to refer the matter to the district's lawyers and is expected to make a final ruling within a week or two. Board member Tom Baldwin cast the dissenting vote, saying he wanted the documents released immediately.

While district officials say they are declining to make the applications public to protect committee members who probably believed the information would remain confidential, Brown said she suspects other motives.

The former city councilwoman said the applications may contain evidence of a bias in favor of the status quo--which she says would explain why certain members were selected and why the group's final report to the school board suggested so few changes.

"If there's nothing in there, why are they so reluctant to let me have it?" Brown asked. "They're stonewalling this."

Brown and Dorothy Ventimiglia, another resident who has asked to see the applications, both applied unsuccessfully to serve on the committee.

Another resident who applied but was not selected was Helen Taylor, a failed mayoral and school board candidate who mounted the petition drive that helped persuade the school board to impanel the special group. Taylor said the district also denied her request to see the applications shortly after the committee was formed.

Committee members were appointed by Duffy and asked to study a possible realignment of the district's five elementary schools and the creation of specialized magnet schools.

In a 52-page report presented to the board in November after 14 months of work, the group decided not to recommend a reconfiguration of the district's five elementary schools or a move toward magnet schools. The group did suggest the district increase parental involvement, reduce class size and mount a more aggressive public relations effort.

David Pollock, who chaired the committee and defends its work, said he has no problems with the release of the documents. "I don't think they're sensitive at all," he said. "If (Brown) gets her hands on them, I'm afraid she'll be terribly disappointed."

School board member Clint Harper agreed with colleagues on the board to seek legal advice on the issue, but says he has no problem releasing the documents.

"I read all of them a long time ago and I can't remember any information in them that I would consider privileged information that would harm the committee members in any way," Harper said.

Harper added that the district's strong stand against releasing the documents may be adding to the perception that they contain evidence of manipulation by school officials.

"It certainly gives the impression that we may have something to hide," Harper said. "I would be in favor--unless there is a completely counter opinion from our attorney--of releasing the documents."

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